The Washington Times - February 9, 2009, 11:14AM

Can you recall dire warnings from various wildlife advocacy groups that Florida’s shy and friendly water-bound giants, the manatees, are in serious danger because they’re either too trusting or too dumb to realize that boat propellers can inflict serious damage to their bodies? It makes for interesting news snippets delivered by the national television networks.

But here’s some good news.

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The Fishing Wire that usually lets us know who caught what and where in North America now passes along news of a team of scientists counting an all-time-high number of manatees during an annual manatee synoptic survey that was recently conducted.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) is delighted to report a preliminary count of 3,807 manatees statewide. A team of 21 observers from nine organizations counted 2,153 manatees on Florida’s East Coast and 1,654 on the West Coast of the state.

The FWC says this year’s count exceeded the previous high count that happened eight years ago by more than 500 animals. In both years, survey conditions were favorable for aerial observations. That means the water was so clear and the manatees gathered so tightly together that a count and overall guesstimate was reasonably easy to accomplish.

So we are happy to know that the manatee population seems to be on the increase in Northwest Florida, along the Atlantic Coast and on the upper St. Johns River.

But what it doesn’t tell you is how a manatee can scare the bejeebers out of you.

It happened to me in the aforementioned St. Johns River some years ago as I was fishing with two friends, sitting in the boat half asleep, enjoying the balmy winter weather when — without any warning — a manatee’s head appeared on the water’s surface no more than 10 feet from me.

Great goshamighty! I thought the ugliest human being on the planet had just surfaced, perhaps caught in the throes of drowning, maybe severely traumatized in an accident. Believe me, it required a few seconds before I realized that what I was looking at in my daydream-like haze was a live, healthy manatee — not an exceedingly homely looking person that needed rescuing.

What I still can’t understand is how old-time sailors — especially those who manned sailing vessels during the 16th and 17th centuries — came upon manatees in Florida waters and actually believed they saw mermaids whenever a manatee came near.

Mermaids. Fat, wrinkle-skinned, ugly mermaids.

Folks, try to imagine how intensely these poor sailors longed for female companionship to think a manatee might have been a sexy looking mermaid.

Hoo, boy!

- Gene Mueller