Muriel the Manatee Image

Muriel the Manatee

Within the group of manatees (aka an aggregation) that reside in Wakulla Springs in Florida in the NE corner of the Gulf, Muriel is the most senior  ... and the most loved. While she is well approaching her life span of 60 years, she continuously moves through the various spots where younger groups of manatees gather.  In particular, these are the spots further out from the warm water exhaust pipes of the power plant for the young male manatees seeking to demonstrate their bravado by testing their ability to exist in water less than 68ºF. 

Over the past 10 months, Muriel had been accepted in the role of manatee-matcher by the youth and parents alike. Her many years of experience in dealing with all ages of manatees gave her an unique talent in aligning and introducing young male and female manatees for their consideration of becoming a couple. BUT, no manatee in the aggregation knew of her background before she showed up at that time ... and she had not shared her history with others, that is until 2 weeks ago when the older manatees could see her moving more slowly than usual as well as a decreasing involvement with the  youth. It was clear to the elders that Muriel was losing her spark.

Prior to joining this aggregation, Muriel had a very interactive life with sailboats further down the Gulf near Tampa. She had been quite the sport by freely associating with those craft especially those that would anchor off shore from the creek in which she resided most of the year. She was particularly known by sailors for forcefully nudging their sloops at achor in the early morning hours to arouse the occupants. Once the startled individuals came up to the deck, she would pop her had above the surface very slowly so as to not startle any children. She would then nestle to the side of the stern so as all could pet her welcoming face before swimming away flashing her broad tailfin as she submerged. Those boaters familiar with her friendly antics over the years would often attach bunches of romaine loosely to the stern line to encourage her visits.

One particular August night there was a half moon with spotty cloud cover when Muriel was out and about, but earlier in the evening than normal. She recognized a particular sloop at anchor given its yellow hull with a white stripe at the waterline, and she purposely headed in that direction. She specifically remembered the 2 children that were absolutely thrilled with her presence the year before and that had offered her romaine lettuce and a carrot, no less. She fully expected that the romaine and carrot treat would be awaiting her. She remained just below the surface as she approached the boat at her normal speed of 5 mph. Suddenly, she was strucked by a small skiff with an outboard motor slicing her back. but not through her thick layer of tough skin/ fat so as to harm her internally. The skiff proceeded unknowingly, and Muriel rolled to her side as she continued moving toward the sloop with her head tilted just above the water. Unlike so many manatees that had suffered fatal injuries from motor boats, she knew she would survive as she had several times before in similar incidents being strucked by motor boats. With no natural enemies, Muriel had learned to stay in shallow waters to avoid large motor boats. But the skiff had taken her by surprise, and she drifted slowly towards the sloop feeling the noticeable, but mild pain of her injuries.  She was not to be denied her expected romaine / carrot and more importantly the visit with the children that she recalled from last year.

The parents on the sloop had witnessesed the accident, but fortunately not the children who were below deck and would have been horrified. Immediately, the father grabbed a short line and jumped into the water next to the somewhat-stunned Muriel and wrapped the line around her left flipper to secure her to the boat. Not an easy task, but he knew what had to be done in such situations having been around manatees since his childhood. With Muriel secured, he told his wife to go below deck and bring up a wooden spaula and 2 bottles of honey from their own hives that were always present during breakfast. (As a side note, the consumption of LOCAL honey is believed by such folks to be effective in preventing respective pollen allergies.)  The father inspected the depth of the fresh wounds and found them to be only an inch or so deep as he hoped. Using the spatula, he filled them with the honey. It was also known to by locals  that unpasturized honey has natural anti-bacteria properties as well as the ability to stay within the wound given its stickiness. 

There was nothing else that could be done at that point. The father released the line around Muriel's fin, petted her broad face for several minutes and returned to the deck and retired below without informing the children of the situation. Muriel returned slowly to her favorite resting place in the feeder creek.

The next morning the sloop prepared to depart for its next point of their week-long voyage. At breakfast the 6-yr old son, Chad, expressed his disappointment in not interacting with the manatee as he and sister had done the previous year. Both parents had decided to not mention the incident, but rahter to explain that perhaps the next anchorage would have some manatees this year. Indeed, that was the case as to observing manatees, but without the friendly interaction that they had enjoyed the previous year with Muriel.

Over the next several months Muriel was slowing down overall given her age. The wounds had healed without infection, but with the scars clear on her back. It was at this point that she decided to head North along the shallow water near the shore to again take up resifence in Wakulla Springs.

In 10 months the water temperature there was changing to a point that she expected the timing was such that the sailboats in general, and the yellow sloop with the 2 children in particular, would be returning to the area near Tampa that she had left . Although diminished in her strength given her age, she had to make one more trip South, and she did. What she didn't expect was that 2 of the young manatees, 1 each male and female, decided to accompany her on this trip and to experience new waters. They trusted her and knew that she would not expose them to dangerous waters as to either temperature or motor boats. It took a week before they settled into the new area.

On the first night in their new habitat, the 2 young manatees headed out in the early evening following Muriel to toy with the sailboats at anchor. The yellow sloop was there, and the 3 headed towards it.  Muriel raised her head above the surface and saw the children sitting on the aft deck. The father was busy coiling the lines for the main sail and jib. Chad was the first to notice Muriel and gave a shreik of glee. The father turned and recognized Muriel by her scars. Suddenly, the 2 younger manatees raised their head above the water and the 2 children were jumping with joy.  All 3 manatees nestled to the sloop as the mother went below decks to obtain some romaine and carrots.

After 10 minutes or so, the manatees swam away from the sloop, with Muriel leading. This was Muriels' final departure from her 'rascially' life of interacting with sloops.  She returned to her resting place in the feeder creek with the 2 younger manatees taking on the role that she had over the years.  

Ten years later, Chad would enter an artistic challenge by the city of Jacksonville, FL to decorate one of 20 life-size, fiberglass molds of manatees for display throughtout the city. Being raised by liberal parents, Chad decided on a design for a hip neighborhood known as 5 points frequented by the younger crowd. Purchased at a public auction, 'Spike' (with 5 points) proudly resides in my backyard.

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