I will never forget the first time I saw a manatee. I was staying with my grandmother and with a wide smile over breakfast she told me she had a surprise for me. She took me to a park where the water was warm and the manatees floated serenely below. We were both silent for a long time, delighted to watch these incredible creatures up close. I was spellbound and allowed time to slow as I appreciated these wonders. Even though my grandmother sees these beautiful animals every week, her face matched mine with its look of awe.
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It’s easy to see why manatees have entranced so many—these gentle giants and their cousins have inspired storytellers all over the world. Manatees belong to the order Sirenia, named because these creatures might have inspired the legend of the siren—a mythical being that enchanted sailors. Manatees occasionally stand on their tail which makes them look even more humanlike floating below the surface. Skeletons of manatees were even brought back to Europe as proof of the existence of mermaids.
Humans have been entranced by these incredible creatures far before the myth of the mermaid was first told. Dugongs, a cousin of the manatee, were found in a 3,000-year-old cave drawing in Palau where myths about young women transforming into these magical creatures have been passed down. Dugong is in fact a Malay word that means “lady of the sea.”
In West Africa, the manatee was inspiration for the legend of Mami Wata, a spirit of the sea and the mother of waters. Mami Wata is often depicted as a woman and, like a mermaid, she is half human, half fish. She brings good fortune to those who worship her. Manatees also play a role in the traditional religion of the Serer people of Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania. They are considered the guardians of the secrets of the future. They also believe in Mindess, a female protector, who comes to humans in the shape on a manatee.
Manatees have inspired us for generations and remind me of the power and wonder of our ocean. I have never needed a manatee moment more than now to remind me to slow down and appreciate the incredible wildlife we have here on this planet. Sometimes all it takes is a single glimpse of one of the amazing creatures we are lucky enough to share the planet with to stop you in your tracks and fill you with wonder and awe.
Whenever I see a photo of the gentle face of a manatee it takes me back to that moment with my grandmother, entranced by these incredible animals. It connects me to the stories of humans throughout history who knew there was magic in our ocean and felt the call to protect it.