Manatee makes rare showing

Marine mammal visits Little Creek marina in Norfolk Harbor

May 09, 2002|By Paul Clancy | Paul Clancy,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NORFOLK, Va. - Boaters at Taylor's Landing Marine Center at Little Creek were startled at the sight of a large gray form cruising from boat to boat, from pier to pier, then suddenly surfacing with soft puffs of air.

It was a full-grown manatee, one of the planet's most endangered marine mammals, in a rare public appearance this far from its home in Florida.

Children sprayed it with fresh water, which it seemed to love, and reached down from the floating docks to touch its soft, scarred back.

`Wet leather chair'

"He feels like a big, wet leather chair," said L.J. Durand, a 12-year-old who spent hours following the animal around the docks recently.

"Like an old baseball glove," said Joel Sorrell, manager of the nearby Surfrider Restaurant.

It was not Chessie, the famous manatee that has been spotted as far north as Rhode Island on one of its regular commutes to northern feeding haunts.

But according to members of the Virginia Marine Science Museum stranding team who rushed to the marina to investigate, the animal is a typical adult, 11 to 12 feet long, weighing about 2,500 pounds. It appeared to be healthy, they said.

It has three propeller scars on its back, all of them healed.

Actually, touching it, feeding it or giving it water is not a good idea, the museum said.

"It gets them acclimated to human activity," said museum spokeswoman Alice Scanlan. "They'll keep coming back, and that may prevent them from heading back down south when they need to."

A 1997 estimate put the number of manatees at about 2,200 in Florida.

Related to elephants

They're large, gentle, herbivorous mammals, distantly related to elephants and sometimes called "sea cows." Because they're slow-moving, difficult to see and swim near the surface, they're frequently struck, and sometimes killed, by boats.

The museum urged boaters in the Little Creek area to be on the lookout and proceed with caution.

It was apparently spotted over the weekend at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, feeding on algae on the bottom of ships.

That was apparently its food of choice as it grazed through the Little Creek marina Monday.

Michelle Connolly, office manager at Taylor's, said the manatee was spotted about 1:30 p.m. near the fish cleaning station. "I've been here for almost five years and never seen anything like this," she said.

The manatee poked its whiskered face, with algae on one of its cheeks, out of the creek water when the boys turned on the hose, gray lips gulping at the fresh water.

"It would be cool if we could catch him and put him in our house," said Weston George, 12, L.J. Durand's friend.

"It would be cool if we could tell Sea World and have them come and get him," said L.J.

"I might work at Sea World when I get older," Weston said. The marine complex in Orlando has a stranding facility that tends to injured and sick manatees.

Scanlan said the museum is sending photos to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will match the images with a catalog of known manatees and perhaps identify it.

Each year brings occasional manatee sightings in Hampton Roads, but this is one of the first times researchers have been able to see one up close.

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