Killer Manatees
The Beachside Resident - January 2010

It happened the other day, while I was stand-up paddleboarding the river, skirting the periphery of the Thousand Islands, soaking up the last, honey-coated days of summer. I cruised along the warm, glassy waters in the lee of the mangroves — hovering, really, like a blissed-out gondolier — scarcely conscious of my body... one of those weightless moments when all seems right in the world, all things perfect and silent and harmonious.

The sunset spread out before me in jeweled ribbons of color — the clouds seemed lifted from Monet — as if the whole river were holding its breath, carrying me to the brink of some fantastic, life-changing revelation… Suddenly, the water in front of my board heaved. A fin rose up, sliced through the calm, made a hard line for me.

My board lurched, and I felt myself flicked skyward, like a mullet tossed by a dolphin. As I tumbled through the air, I glimpsed the algae-coated surface of a manatee’s hump below me. The water frothed violently; the last thing I saw before losing consciousness was the blunt clamshell of the beast’s tail.

When I awoke, I was drifting on my back, on the paddleboard, dusk. I had been swept south, to the southern tip of Merritt Island, where the papier-mâché dragon once lurched its ragged neck over the lagoon. Cool sideways rain was strafing my face. I knee-paddled to shore, retreived my cell phone from my dry-bag, and called my wife. It was a freak accident, I explained. I had been attacked by a manatee… could she pick me up? Yes, I was serious. A manatee, I repeated. That’s right, attacked.

My brush with death shook me up, and I couldn’t sleep all that night. For some reason, I felt like Ahab, drawn back to the water in search of this killer beast. But before I could take boldly to sea, I would need to arm myself with more information about the manatee. Was it possible that my knowledge of the creatures had been predicated on myth and hearsay? Were manatees not slothful, somehow fragile, peace-loving herbivores?

In regards to swimming speed: manatees are known to travel anywhere from 1 to 2 miles per hour. Colloquial evidence has shown them to reach speeds up to 15 mph. In one isolated incident, a fisherman in the British Honduras purported to witness a manatee swimming at a speed of 30 mph, though this assertion has been called into question by the scientific community.

At the time of this writing, there has never been a documented manatee attack.

The more I investigated the manatee, the greater the gulf between my research and my encounter became. In all of recorded history, I could find no incidences of death by manatee. None. I began to doubt my own experience. Was it possible something else had assaulted me?

After an exhausting, six-minute investigation, I finally came upon a promising article. Only weeks ago, a story had broken in Madeira Beach: Russ Sittlow, a 78-year-old man, had videotaped a 30-foot monster in the canal behind his home. Authorities claimed the alleged monster was a manatee, but Sittlow vehemently disagreed, saying he had seen manatees, that he knew manatees, in fact he had watched them loll around these canals for over fifty years. “Normandy Nessie,” as he called her, was no manatee. A snake, maybe, or some kind of serpent, but not a manatee.

Was it possible I had been attacked by Nessie, or one of her kind? There was only one way to find out. I bought another paddle, tied it to my wrist, and set out into the river. I quickly came across a herd of grazing manatees.

At rest, these animals seemed harmless enough. Like large river rocks, or half-sunken beach balls. But as I approached, I realized that even in the shallow water, they could move with suprising speed. I made two sweeps around the pack, each time eliciting a furious storm of whitewater. Then one of the beasts turned its snout toward me, submerged, and with two impressive thrusts of its tail, launched me and my board high into the air. This time, I was ready. I held onto my paddle, assumed a more favorable landing position, and successfully avoided head trauma.

As I paddled back in, wide-eyed and drenched, my neighbor called out to ask what had happened. When I told him, he laughed, and told me that his 12-foot catamaran had been flipped by these same manatees not a month ago.

Was it possible Wikipedia had its facts wrong? Were manatees truly violent, hostile creatures? No, it was useless to doubt Wikipedia. More likely I had stumbled upon an pack of rogues. Potentially, even, a new breed. I proceeded to the next logical step in my Google research; I punched in the term “manatee evolution.”

Accordingly: manatees are highly adaptive, intelligent animals, descendants of the elephant, or aardvark, or the hyrax (which is something like a gopher). Like the dolphin and whale, they made the move from land to water long ago. Scientists are not sure how this is possible, but manatees have an amazing ability to survive hurricanes. Some theorize that their body structure allows them to bounce around during the storms. The manatee has no natural predators, and for 60 million years it thrived in these waters, until the introduction of motor boats, which abruptly brought them to the verge of extinction.

Boats were really only introduced into these waterways en masse in the past fifty years. Couldn't it makes sense, then, that a sort of weeding out process might have occurred? A premium suddenly placed on awareness, on speed, and on the ability to avoid the outboard motor... perhaps we are seeing a “next generation” manatee — Florida Manatee 2.0 — built stronger, faster… and more deadly.

I longed to get back out in the water, to study these animals in greater detail. I would take a trip to Madeira Beach, meet with Mr. Sittlow, and fit my board with a waterproof video camera. This trend needed to be documented, analyzed… publicized for the greater good of mankind.

When my wife caught wind of my intentions, however, she demanded I give the wretched beasts a wide berth. I pleaded with her, but as always, her logic won out. What choice did I have? I would have to watch them from a distance.

I suppose I should end with a warning: never approach a sleeping manatee, and for God’s sake, steer clear of manatee orgies. Do not take these animals lightly… they are not your father’s sea cows.