I didn’t know what a manatee was until I came face-to-face with one on a family holiday to Orlando in the early 90s. Although orcas dominated my brain (and every piece of blank paper in the house) for years after we returned to England, the manatees stuck with me in a big way too. Seeing these strange, gentle grey lumps drifting peacefully about their habitat and learning that those horrific scars and lost limbs were the fault of humans – the result of our careless intrusion into their world – didn’t sit right with me. I became so enamoured with these creatures that my family rushed out of the Shamu night show early on our last evening at the park to beat the crowds leaving just behind us so that I had time to buy a small plush manatee at the gift shop. We took a photo of me crouching next to the license plate of our rental car, holding my manatee and pointing, because it featured one right in the middle.
There was a piece on the plight of the manatee on children’s TV not long after our trip. The details are fuzzy to me 18 years later, but I remember jumping at the chance to write in and get involved. I donated what little I could. My primary school held an animal story writing competition; I wrote (and lovingly illustrated) a short story about an injured manatee being rescued and released. I still have my winning certificate somewhere.
These guys were really the first time I was able to get involved with a conservation issue and I’ve been passionate about it ever since. Several people have suggested I paint manatees and I’d love to – these sketches are some practice. I’d already drawn three out of the five when I learned that today is the 64th birthday of Snooty, the first manatee born in human care and an amazing ambassador for his species, just like the ones that touched my heart when I was eight.