He's out there. A lumbering, bewhiskered marine mammal, inexplicably blundering around the Chesapeake Bay. And as bay temperatures drop and the wily manatee eludes his rescuers' nets, the tension mounts. Can this manatee be saved?
The question is gripping plenty of Marylanders. But even before the endangered sea cow wandered into Queenstown Creek this week, Maryland was catching manatee fever.
Once little known outside Florida, manatees are suddenly hot everywhere. Their popularity has been on the rise ever since pop singer Jimmy Buffett began crusading for the manatee's survival a decade ago.
Now animal lovers across the country are snapping up manatee T-shirts, stuffed animals and coffee cups. In Florida, "Save the Manatee" license plates appear on hundreds of thousands of bumpers. And even at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which doesn't work with manatees, interest is keen.
Not long ago, "most people didn't know what a manatee was," says Vicky Whittier, buyer for the aquarium's gift shop. Now, "people are actually [asking], 'Do you have anything with a manatee?' " she says.
The shop carries an assortment of sterling silver manatee jewelry and plush stuffed manatees from $16 to $45. Next year, it will add a manatee T-shirt.
At Nature Company in the Inner Harbor, demand for manatee items exceeds supply, store manager Kristie West says. Most products with a manatee theme are carried in the chain's Florida stores.
"We have told the company to carry them here," she says. "It's definitely not just a regional interest."
Manatee mania is easy to understand. They are the teddy bears of the sea. They're huge, they're blubbery, they invite human contact. They're so ugly, they're cute.
"They are a very gentle species, and they're also very curious," says Nancy Sadusky, communications director of the Save the Manatee Club, a national non-profit organization based in Maitland, Fla. "People gravitate to them, they're so big and lovable. And they're harmless. They are not causing any harm to anyone or anything."
The manatee is a large, gray-brown aquatic mammal with a wrinkled head and a whiskered snout. An adult measures anywhere from 8 feet to 15 feet long and weighs up to 3,500 pounds. Having no natural enemies, the gentle, slow-moving creature spends most of its time munching on sea grass and other aquatic plants. Its closest relative is the elephant.
In the United States, the manatee population has been decimated by a rapid loss of habitat and frequent collisions with power boats. Only 1,850 manatees are left, mostly in the warm waters of Florida.
In the summer, the animals migrate as far north as Virginia, but manatees in Maryland are practically unheard of. Although rescuers are trying to find the one that's been swimming around the Chesapeake since mid-summer, so many people have claimed to have sighted a manatee in far-reaching parts of the bay, scientists now wonder if there's more than one. However, wildlife experts say, one manatee -- or more -- will not survive once the water temperature drops below 68 degrees. So time is running short to save the creature.
In Florida, where the manatees inhabit estuaries, saltwater bays, canals and coastal areas, the manatee has become a symbol of the state's imperiled natural wonders.
Ever since he came eye to eye with a manatee, laid-back Florida songster Jimmy Buffett has crusaded for the marine mammal's survival.
He and former Florida governor (and now senator) Bob Graham were co-founders of the Adopt-A-Manatee program, operated through the Save the Manatee Club. So far, 38,000 members of the Save the Manatee Club, including 612 Marylanders, have adopted a manatee, Ms. Sadusky says.
Mr. Buffett also performs in concert for club fund-raisers and tapes public service announcements.
The singer's fans, known as parrot heads, have quickly jumped on the Save the Manatee bandwagon.
"Among the parrot heads, if he says something is worthwhile, you accept it as worthwhile," says Baltimorean Pete Kerzel, a Buffett and manatee fan. Besides, says the media relations specialist at Union Memorial Hospital, "how can you not like such a docile, trusting creature?"
Thousands of other people have become manatee lovers after visiting Seaquarium in Miami, Sea World outside of Orlando and Lowry Park zoo in Tampa, where injured or sick manatees are rehabilitated.
"It's really fascinating to see such a large animal," says Robert O. Turner, manatee recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Usually we think of danger when we see something that can weigh over 3,000 pounds."
But when Mr. Turner works on his boat, it's not unusual for a manatee to nudge him in a trusting request for a back rub. And there's the irony, he says. "We're the only threat to their survival."
So it figures that we would fall in love with a creature that embodies all we can't afford to be: trusting, slow, primitive, overweight and wrinkled. It's a lesson for all humanatee.