Retirees Charlotte and Jerry Ehrob, who came south from Grand Rapids, Mich., on a midwinter vacation, heard about them soon after checking into their motel, on the beach about 20 miles south of here.
"Somebody told us it was the best free show around," said Charlotte Ehrob, 62, a former nurse. "So we just drove over to see."
What the Ehrobs had come to see this sunny midwinter afternoon were manatees, aquatic distant cousins to the elephant, several of which were now languidly and gracefully swimming around the pilings and moored sailboats in a city-owned marina here.
To the delight of a small crowd of onlookers who lined the dock, oohing and ahhing, about 15 of the hulking mammals glided through the water, frequently poking their snouts above the surface as if to look at the people looking at them. Even more captivating were those manatees that would come right up to the dock, roll over on their backs, stick out their tongues, and with front fippers at rest across their chests, bask in the spray of fresh water that tourists offered from hoses.
"That," said a laughing Charlotte Ehrob after getting her first close-up look at a manatee's mug, "is a face only a mother could love."
In fact, the manatee's homely face, its gentle, endearing manner, and the realization that the entire U.S. population of this endangered species may number no more than 1,200, recently has won the creature a lot of attention.
In Florida--winter home to the entire U.S. population--more stringent environmental laws are being proposed to preserve habitat, tough new power-boat restrictions have been mandated in an effort to cut down on accidental deaths resulting from collisions, and celebrities such as Jimmy Buffett and Cheryl Tiegs have headed up efforts to save the manatee.
But here in Ft. Pierce, a city of 40,000 residents that City Manager James (Bo) Powell describes as "somewhat depressed," a slightly different perspective is gaining popularity. In exchange for human help in saving the manatee, many say, the manatee may help save the city.
Caught through the last decade in a downward cycle of high unemployment, a sagging tax base and an influx of illegal immigrants from Haiti, Ft. Pierce, located on the Atlantic coast about 120 miles north of Miami, only recently has begun to show signs of revival. Just last month the city leased the city marina to a private developer with plans to build a floating restaurant, a 120-room hotel and shops on the Indian River here. Blocks away, construction is soon to begin on a new city hall and a multistory state office building, part of $50-million worth of redevelopment scheduled here over the next five years.
And now there are manatees. "Our state, like California, is flooded with people from other states, hungry for entertainment," says Powell. "The manatees are something extra, and we should take advantage of it, not just to promote Ft. Pierce, but to educate people and protect this animal as well."
Ironically, the reason one short section of a Ft. Pierce marina is winter home to as many as 50 manatees flows not from any new development, but rather from one of the oldest--the town's 70-year-old power plant. Water drawn from the Indian River is used to cool steam generated by gas-fired turbines. When that water is pumped into Moore Creek, on which one leg of the marina sits, it is up to eight degrees warmer than the river water. And the manatees love it.
"These are tropical animals, without a lot of thermal tolerance, living in a subtropical environment," says James P. Reid, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who was also at dockside the day the Ehrobs visited. "Manatees have used these warm water sites to extend their winter range, and that can be to their benefit. But modifying their environment can change some natural behaviors, too."
Indeed, as word spreads that manatees can always be found basking in the marina's warm waters during the winter months, tourists have been showing up in rising numbers. Some bring heads of lettuce and even broccoli to feed the vegetarian giants, and it is not uncommon to see visitors reach down to pat the playful manatees on the head, or even scratch their bellies, as they come up for gulps of air and fresh water.
Reid fears that such growing familiarity may leave the manatees even more susceptible to harm from their only natural enemy--man, especially man in a power boat.
Power boats, which outnumber manatees in Florida about 600 to one, remain a major killer, accounting for about one of every four reported manatee deaths between 1979 and 1988. Most adult manatees--which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds--bear telltale scars on their backs from boat propeller gashes.
In December and January, extreme cold also exacted a heavy toll. As air temperatures dipped into the 30s at Christmastime, water temperatures in Central and North Florida dropped well below the critical 60-degree mark. In January, state biologists recovered 72 dead manatees from Florida waters, and three from Georgia. Of those fatalities--the highest monthly total ever recorded--46 were attributed directly to cold, according to Bruce Ackerman, a researcher with Florida's Department of Natural Resources. Some of those killed may have been lured north of their natural range by warm water discharges, researchers suggest.
Despite those grim statistics, and a mounting public awareness of manatees and their precarious future, not everyone is convinced the species' numbers are in decline. Aerial surveys of manatees, conducted during the winter when the animals tend to congregate at warm water sites, have put the state's population at about 1,200 since 1984. Biologists admit that number is conservative.
"Boaters report to us that they see a lot of manatees out there," said Van Snider, executive director of the Marine Industries Assn. of South Florida Inc., a trade and lobbying group. While contending that biologists undercount manatees, Snider also says that power boaters "have been given a bad rap" regarding fatalities.
Snider charges that politicians, including Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, have used concern for the manatee's future to smoke-screen their real agenda: growth management. Snider and other representatives of boating and development interests are especially critical of a new state policy limiting power boat slips in 13 coastal counties.
Judith Vallee, executive director of Save the Mantee Club, a nonprofit 23,000-member group based in Maitland, said the perception that the manatee population has risen may be a result of continuing habitat destruction that has caused them to congregate more.
"For me the manatee symbolizes that our resources are finite," Vallee says. "We have a moral obligation to work for their preservation."
Vallee says the next six months, when both the Florida legislature and the cabinet will consider additional protective measures, are critical. "I am hopeful," she says. "So many people love manatees, and when you have public support you can get things done. But if we don't get the protection we need, then we will lose the manatee."
Although it has only been in the last 15 years that scientists have begun to study the West Indian manatee, it is believed to have inhabited the warms seas around Florida and the Caribbean for eons, and been the stuff of myth for centuries.
Manatees are the sole survivors of the order Sirenia, a name that reflects historians' suppositions that these are the animals which inspired seafarers' tales of tempting mermaids. In 1493, Christopher Columbus sighted three saltwater Loreleis off the coast of the New World, and while thinking they were mermaids of legend, also noted in his log, "They were not as beautiful as they are painted, since in some ways they have a face like a man."
Truly, a manatee's rumpled, bulbous face falls well outside the normal standards of female beauty. So how to explain its provocative role? Manatee researcher Bruce Ackerman suggests the animal's body, more than its face, may have fired the imagination of long-distance sailors, since the manatee's breasts are located high on the body, in much the same position as in humans.
Nursing females often seem to hold their young in a manner similar to human mothers, and the nipples of nursing females are often protruding. The name manatee, in fact, may come from the Carib word manati , meaning woman's breast.
But Ackerman has another thought as well. "Those sailors had been a sea for a long time by the time they saw manatees," he says. "Or maybe the whole thing was a practical joke being played on the new guys."
Also called sea cows, manatees are believed to live up to 50 or 60 years in the wild, but their reproductive rate is low.
Apart from females with calves, manatees are considered solitary, feeding and traveling alone. A federal telemetry project, which for about 10 years has charted the movements of manatees fitted with transmitters that can be monitored on the ground or by satellite, has shown some animals can travel up to 50 miles a day.
And although manatees do venture out into the ocean, especially when migrating, most of their time is spent feeding on sea grasses in the brackish waters of coastal rivers and inlets where fresh and salt water meet.
Reid, 35, was in Ft. Pierce hunting for an animal that he had fitted the previous day with a rubber belt-like harness to which a five-foot tether and floating transmitter is attached. But the animal had given Reid only a few seconds to work before moving off, and he wanted another chance at tightening the connection between harness and tether.
From his boat, Reid monitored a strengthening signal that told him the collared manatee was headed into the marina. Suddenly, a manatee trailing a red and white transmitter that bobbed in the water like a Roman candle surfaced within feet of Reid's boat, headed for the warm water.
Minutes later, Reid had pulled on his wet suit, flippers and mask, picked up a small wrench, and as a knot of tourists looked on, slipped into the water. Moving slowly through the milling crowd of manatees, Reid spent about 20 minutes stalking his target before finally getting into position behind the beast as it idled under a sailboat. Then he dove down, put the wrench on the loose connector, and completed his mission.
"I've got a unique job," said Reid when he emerged from the water. "In a way I get to act like a manatee, enter their world, and experience the manatee mystique. They are unlike anything else. And I'm optimistic we're going to save them."
In City Hall, meanwhile, officials have just begun to talk about how to effect a mutual salvation project that protects the animals while publicizing their presence in Ft. Pierce. Says Douglas Ballard, the city's redevelopment director: "I think this is a rare instance where the development of the downtown and environmental concerns are not at cross-purposes. I don't want the manatees to become commercialized, but, hey, they're here, and they could be a major attraction."