Posted by: Steve Coplan | September 20, 2006

Manatee

Being fat, ugly and slow doesn’t necessarily make you stupid, especially if you are a manatee — according to this report. This revelation would strike me as surprising only if you transposed some very human prejudices on these lumbering creatures. After all, they belong to the same genus as dolphins and whales, whose intelligence is immediately apparent. Still, there are some good reasons to assume manatees aren’t that smart – they have the largest body-to-brain ratio of all mammals (meaning they have large bodies and an unusually small brain). The new research discussed in the report suggests that it’s their bodies that got bigger, not their brains got smaller in response to their environment. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that hanging around all day in warm water, constantly munching on copious amounts of sea grass drives the evolutionary impulse to intelligence.

The intelligence of whale and dolphins is immediately apparent because we associate the ability to interact with intelligence — which is a generalization holds true in the context of toddlers (and let me tell you, does my son interact!) — and an indication of an individualized consciousness. In dolphins and whales this manifests itself as behavior that might be characterized as showing off. Off the beach from our family holiday home in Plettenberg Bay, dolphins would (and probably still) race each other swim through the waves before they broke, sometimes acrobatically leaping backwards just before the waves break. Scenes like the one below aren’t uncommon at all and it’s typically male adolescents who are involved. Sometimes dolphins would sneak up on me when I was waiting beyond the breakers for a wave, or even bump into my surfboard. Even though shark attacks are rare in that part of the world, it would take me a minute or two to remember to breathe again and not given into complete panic after a little dolphin mischief.

I’ve only seen a manatee once outside of captivity and even then it was just her fluke. Mary and I went to Belize for our honeymoon starting off in Ambergris Caye – reportedly the inspiration for Madonna’s La Isla Bonita although we didn’t spot many girls with eyes like the desert – and then moving onto Placencia. Judging by the photos I can locate on Flickr tagged with Placencia not much has changed in the intervening eight years. Placencia is pretty isolated, and its natural beauty and the warmth of the people notwithstanding is a bit bedraggled. Making things worse we were one of three couples staying in a concrete monstrosity infested with sand fleas run by creepy Canadians. After much cajoling to make the best of a bad situation, we did.

We spent an entire day in the company of a generally foul-tempered fellow called Evaristo whose mood only lifted when either of us (and more frequently me) made a fool of ourselves. Probably the highlight of his day was the half hour we could endure in the rain forest when in an exercise of absolute futility we smeared ecofriendly mosquito deterrent all over as hundreds of them assembled on every part of bare skin while he kept them at bay with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. With a sixth grade education, and living in an isolated part of the world, Evaristo was more knowledgeable about systems and processes that most people I’ve met. Heading back into a light rain with the light fading after a late lunch at the Monkey River Town where Evaristo picked up a skinned and beheaded gibnut (basically a large hamster), he suddenly cut the engine.

Earlier in the day we discussed swimming with the manatees, which some tour guides allowed but we were ambivalent about since it satisfied our need to tick it off on the list of tourist must do’s but didn’t seem responsible behavior around an endangered species. Evaristo let it be known he was opposed to swimming with the manatees but at some level wanted to ensure we caught a glimpse of one of them in the wild. When we cut the engine he announced “manatee”, I was pretty skeptical since the water was entirely flat, the rain was picking up and we were moving pretty fast. Just then, about 15 feet away, this large mass surfaced facing away and then slowly dropped back into the water, letting its beautiful fluke linger out of the water for a moment or two.

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