*(Be sure to visit our most recent post for an update on the mother manatee’s condition … and a few clarifications.)
The sun has only just risen above the Florida Keys. The sluggish waters of the Coconut Cay Canal flow dark murky green, giving no hint of the turquoise gulf waiting just a short kayak paddle away.
This branch of the canal is narrow, no more than twenty feet wide and lined with a dozen cottagey Coconut Cay Motel rooms along its western flank. A sturdy wooden dock runs the length of the rooms, tropical shrubs and palm trees grow to the edge of the low concrete barrier that forms the canal’s low, eastern wall, sheltering the little motel and its guests, but blocking the view to the Gulf of Mexico.
This setting is usually quiet at sunrise, with just a few of Coconut Cay’s guests casting a fishing line or setting up the gear aboard their dockside boats. But there’s a different energy this breezy morning. Half a dozen people are standing in a little knot, murmuring in soft, excited voices and pointing into the canal.
A man with a white buzz-cut and leathery-red face stands at the edge of the dock with a cigarette jutting between the fingers of the hand holding his coffee cup. His other hand is aiming a camera-phone at the dark water. “Looks like she’s feeling better this morning,” he murmurs to his sleepy-eyed wife. She steps up to peer round his shoulder. “And the baby’s nursing, look.”
The husband leans forward, raises his arm slightly and snaps off a photo just as a grey barnacled hump mounds ever so slowly above the surface of the water. A small, dove-grey torpedo with black button eyes and a blunt, pudgy face rises in tandem with the mound, both their shapes now clearly identifying them as a manatee mother and her calf.
“Those white marks on the mom’s back, are those propeller scars?” asks another of the guests, a woman who had only arrived at Coconut Cay the night before.
The man with the camera nods, “Yeah, but those are old ones.” He gestures with his coffee-cup hand, “It’s that big gouge with the pinkish line that’s hurting her. You can see the swelling where it looks infected.
That’s why we called that one eight-hundred number yesterday.” His wife nods at the newcomer. “We seen it posted at the office. 1-888-404-3922
“The vet come right out. She pulled her boat right up along side the mother and gave her an antibiotic injection.” Her husband adds with an appreciative tone, “Said she’ll come every day this week and check up on her. The rescue people do everything they can before taking them away for treatment.”
Another Coconut Cay regular added his two-cents: “Because if they do they usually have to take the baby from the mother.”
None of the motel guests could furnish a reason why the pair would be separated but all firmly believed it would happen if a manatee rescue crew decided the wounded mother had to be brought to a care facility.
Manatees aren’t dolphins, of course.They belong to the order Sirenia – which includes the dugong and the extinct Steller’s sea cow. And, curiously enough, they are distantly related to the elephant! But no matter their family tree, the DRC is the closest facility equipped with the means to rescue these inoffensive, gentle marine mammals.
This manatee pair hung quietly near the surface of the water, hardly moving beyond the natural flow of the canal’s barely perceptible current or the calf’s infrequent breaths. The calf blew the occasional bubble and sometimes seemed to be checking out the gesticulating, hovering humans.
To a person the guests were rooting for the manatees, trying to convince each other the mom really was showing more energy than the day before, the calf nursing more frequently. Most saw the mother’s wounds as a sad, too frequent but inevitable collision between human and manatee behaviors and activities. Others tried not to raise their voices as they brought up the Miami mayor’s recently defeated drive to reduce the manatee’s long-standing protections at the bequest of hard lobbying hotel and fishing industries.
The manatees like to shelter from the wilder elements of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico in Florida’s man-made and natural harbors and canals. They’ve also become accustomed to the fresh water hose-downs some well-meaning, un-informed people offer in exchange for close-up photos.
Combine this marine mammal’s generally docile, dozy nature with their dull coloring and amorphous shapes and it’s easy to imagine how a boater might start their motor without realizing a manatee is lolling under their vessel. The likelihood of life-threatening injuries and even fatalities is compounded by boaters who flaunt state mandated no-wake and speed limit signs posted toward the goal of protecting the manatees from full-on collisions.
The man with the camera handed his wife his coffee and cigarette. He crouched at the edge of the dock, holding its edge with his free hand, leaning as far forward as he dared. He wasn’t after a better photo, he was just trying to get as close as he could, as though he wanted to be sure the manatees heard: “You just keep getting better sweetheart. The vet’s coming to check up on you.”
Here follows a video chronicling a separate manatee encounter filmed by a tourism company on a sunny day at Coconut Cay. It’s really trying to promote the motel, but it gives a good view of the canal and a visiting manatee.
All Coconut Cay canal photos taken by Felicity unless otherwise noted — and except for license plate!