2011-08-24 / Sandy Days, Salty Nights

Mating habits of an endangered species

Nothing draws a crowd like manatees mating. On a recent afternoon, a patrol truck cruised down the beach, lights flashing as a throng of beachgoers looked on. Some snapped photos. Some recorded video. Everyone pointed and stared at the mass of grey bodies roiling in the green waters of the gulf.

I pushed my way through the crowd, pressing to get close, trying to see what all the commotion was about.

The manatees swam close to shore in the knee-deep tides just off the beach, plumes of saltwater splashing as their powerful tails slapped the surface.

“What’s going on?” I asked a man by my side.

He kept his camera trained on the watery tumult a few feet in front of us.

“They’re mating,” he said.

“All of them?”

“One in front’s a female.”

And the rest? All those heavy male bodies piled on, trying to stake a claim during the female’s brief stretch of fertility. They pursued her like a rare gem, a coveted item, the last woman in the world — which, technically speaking, she almost is.

Manatees are after all an endangered species.

I slowed to let the crowd pass by me as the throng of randy sea cows moved parallel to the beach.

A woman spoke as she hurried down the shore.

“Aren’t you glad we’re not manatees?” she said.

I’m at a retreat this week where available women are scarce. There are plenty of men — married men, divorced men, still-single-and-seeking men. But the women who are free to chat, to flirt, to make poor decisions — these women are remarkably limited. They have become suddenly more appealing, their value rising with their scarcity, and in the evening cocktail sessions the men rush to pile on.

In sort of a throw back to summer camp, there’s a bonfire one night. I ask the people seated with me at dinner if they’re going.

“It’s going to be all dudes,” the man to my right says. “A total sausage fest.”

I make my way there anyway, tromping across a field lit by the half moon overhead. In the distance, the fire glows orange against the black pitch of night. I arrive and make a quick tour, saying hello to friends I’ve made. They stand in tight groups holding plastic cups of beer. It is, in fact, a sausage fest. As the night draws down, I make a move to leave.

“Anyone headed back to the inn?” I say.

The men look to their half-full cups and eye each other as if evaluating the competition.

“I’m headed out now,” one says. He drinks the last of his beer in one long draw.

“Me, too,” the man next to him says.

Suddenly we are a crowd, assembled en mass, with me at the head.

We walk back to the lodge, sweeping through the field I crossed earlier, and the men string out across the path. They follow my trail, step up beside me and fall back. They jostle each other as if competing for an endangered species. ¦

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