The Affectionate, Peace-Loving Manatee

When the imaginative sailors who followed Christopher Columbus to America brought back tales of swimming and floating ''mermaids,'' what they actually saw were manatees. Manatees are massive creatures that live in sheltered, slow-moving waters off the coast of Florida, East Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. The ones in Florida are West Indian manatees, which can switch back and forth from salt water to fresh water. They don't look anything like the mythical mermaid, but their family name is still Sirenia, which means ''mermaid'' in Spanish . Manatees have light to dark gray skin and are almost hairless. Their front legs are paddle-shaped and are used as flippers, as is their rounded tail. The manatee's nearest relative is the elephant, and the aquatic mammals have retained their toenails and their sense of smell. They hear better than they see and sometimes bump into objects, especially in murky water. The only aquatic herbivores, manatees eat about 100 pounds a day of seaweed and other water plants, which is why they are popularly known as ''sea cows.'' They can fast for as long as six months, and stay underwater for 15 minutes before coming up for air. Chessie, the adventuresome manatee who has visited the Chesapeake Bay area for the last two summers, set a record this year by becoming the first documented manatee in New England. He traveled about 2,000 miles to Point Judith, R.I., before starting home earlier this month. Manatees are an endangered species. The approximately 2,000 manatees living in Florida may be the largest surviving population in the world. The only enemies of the docile, slow-moving creatures are sharks and people. Manatees are affectionate and peaceful creatures, who have been known to kiss. (The near-sighted creatures are actually tasting to see if they recognize you - much as dogs use their sense of smell.)

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