2009-07-09 / Sandy Days, Salty Nights

Love, lust and the misperceived manatee

In "Love in the Time of Cholera," Nobel prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez writes of long-suffering love, the triumph of old age, and manatees. To be fair, the manatees are less of a theme — more of a motif, really — but they pop up frequently in this epic of romantic longing. We first meet the marine mammals along the waters of the Magdalena as our protagonist heads into the Colombian jungle to escape the sorrow of a broken heart. "Florentino Ariza was never very conscious of that curative journey. He would remember it always, as he remembered everything that happened during that period, through the rarified lens of his misfortune." Perhaps it is this lens that shapes his view of the creatures he watches from the deck of the steamboat, the "alligators sunning themselves on sandy banks, their mouths open to catch butterflies" and "the manatees that nursed their young at large maternal teats and startled the passengers with their woman's cries."

Misfortune or no, Florentino Ariza is not the first man aboard a ship to attribute womanly qualities to the graceful sea cow. Mariners have been mixing up manatees and mermaids for centuries. Even Christopher Columbus might have gotten the two confused. "Mermaids rose high out of the sea," he wrote in 1493. "But were not as beautiful as they are represented." It doesn't help that manatees belong to the order Sirenia, derived from the Latin "siren," the same term used to describe the mythical sea nymphs whose songs led sailors to their deaths.

On the Web site The Straight Dope (motto: "Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 [It's taking longer than we thought]"), message board posters tackle the fishy debate. One inquisitive soul asks if sailors ever consummated their misplaced longings with manatees. A responder points out that the desire was one of imagination and not action, more of a case of nautical mistaken identity. "Some people claim that it's because they had human-like breasts," the answer-giver writes. "I call unlikely on this, too. I've seen dugongs and manatees in too, is a misperception.

According to an article reported on the Miami Herald Web site, a group of 10 manatees was recently spotted offshore near Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, frolicking in the shallow waves. Nine virile males surrounded one big-hipped, thousandpound female and took turns making sweet love to her under the moonlight. A fitting image for a novel about love and lust and a good sign for the continuation of the species.

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