Christy Espinosa  /  Valley Morning Star
The wayward manatee breaks the surface of the water at the marina in Port Mansfield, Texas.
updated 5/24/2005 12:59:02 PM ET 2005-05-24T16:59:02

A manatee has wandered hundreds of miles out of its range to a fishing post at the southern tip of Texas, where it is delighting locals with its lumbering grace and penchant for showing its flippers and belly.

It’s believed to be a Florida manatee, an endangered sea mammal rarely found west of Alabama. Manatee sightings in Texas are rare, usually involving complicated rescues of sick or injured creatures.

But this manatee seems healthy, even playful, as it revels in the fresh water that rolls off boats being washed and the sea grasses that make this town a favorite for shallow-water sports fishing.

“This one may have just been curious and kept moving and said ’Hey, I found me a salad bar that has no competition,”’ said Chuck Underwood, a Florida-based spokesman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Fish & Wildlife has asked locals to help monitor the animal, both for habitat research and in case it overstays the season. Water colder than 68 degrees can cause manatees to go into potentially fatal hypothermia that slows them down and causes them to stop eating.

Florida manatees, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee found throughout the Caribbean, are migratory and vegetarian. They live in saltwater but search by instinct for fresh water and underwater plants.

Once prevalent, their numbers have been depleted by humans — their only natural enemy. American Indians and early colonists hunted manatees for their bones, hides and blubber. More recently, they have been killed by encounters with boats, fishing lines, dams and canal locks.

The Port Mansfield manatee showed up earlier this month and now appears almost daily. It is believed to be about 8 feet long and weigh between 400 and 600 pounds. An average adult is about 10 feet long and weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds.

Fish & Wildlife officials are asking people not to initiate contact with the manatee because it may lose its natural instincts. “Our biggest concern is trying to keep the public from interfering with its movement,” Underwood said. “Wildlife becomes dependent upon people, they quit being wild.”

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