What I learned from a chance meeting with a manatee

A manatee grazes and swims in the canal near the UM Business School. Photo credit: Grace Wehniainen
A manatee grazes and swims in the canal near the UM Business School. Photo credit: Grace Wehniainen

A neat thing happened on the way to Mahoney Residential College the other day. As I trudged to lunch, I caught a whiff of my favorite campus smell – the salty ocean, being carried over through the canals – and was prompted to look at its source, the water beneath the footbridge I was crossing.

At that second, I saw a big gray blob moving below me. In another second, it started to take shape, and I realized there was a manatee a few feet away. I walked down and watched it move from the grass outside the Business School, then followed it back again as it reversed course. I watched the manatee lift up its nose for air and munch on the waterfront plants (these animals are basically big dogs in aquatic form). I followed it around until I ran out of grass to walk on, watching it meander away.

The sighting surprised me on a few levels, the first being, “Wow, there’s a manatee on campus?” And then there was the serendipity of the whole encounter. Had I walked by a few seconds too soon or too late, or had my head hung low, looking at my phone or my feet as usual, I would not have noticed the elephantine oddball moving just at the edge of my peripheral.

It was a reminder not only to look around a little more – even on routine walks to the dining hall, since you never know what you might spot – but to see campus for the teeming zoological Petri dish it really is. I regularly whip out my phone to take pictures of cute dogs, campus cats and graceful ibises, but this latest sighting took me all the way to the edge of the water, or as far as my flip flops would go, at least.

As students, we’re not always confronted with the importance of knowing and caring for the flora and fauna that surround us unless we’re actually studying it. Fortunately, our campus provides plenty of opportunities to practice, even outside of the classroom.

If you see a manatee or some other unique creature that just so happens to be passing by, get a little closer, take some photos and get a visual sense of what we mean when we say “Florida wildlife” – safety permitting, of course. At the very least, it might serve as a reminder to be diligent about keeping trash away from the water, or slowing down your wake in the unlikely event that you ever travel Miami by boat.

Unless you see an alligator. Then maybe just run the other way.

Grace Wehniainen is a junior majoring in motion pictures.