The shadowy forms of manatees swimming slowly just below the water's surface have fascinated people for centuries. Early mariners declared these massive creatures to be mermaids, and legends of them abound from the Caribbean to West Africa. But until recently, scientists knew little about the four species of manatees. Today, a wide range of threats have made the manatees of the United States' southeastern coast an endangered species. With eloquent photographs by Karen Glaser and informative text, Mysterious Manatees increases both our understanding and regard for the manatee, both critical to its survival.
Only about 2,200 members of the Florida manatee subspecies remain. As the South's shallow coastal waterways see more development and tourism, the manatees lose their habitat. Pollution and deforestation damage the areas where manatees feed. Careless divers frighten manatees away from protected areas and into more dangerous waters.
The good news is that in protected areas such as Crystal River, Florida, the manatee population is growing. Photographer Karen Glaser swims with and photographs Florida manatees during their winter gathering in these warm waters of the Florida's Gulf Coast. Though her concern for the manatee inspires her work today, Glaser admied that her initial attraction to them was visual. "I love the magnification and exaggeration of form created by looking through water," said Glaser. "Having a rotund manatee swim by me is like being passed by a zeppelin."
Karen Glaser's photographs offered an intimate glimpse into the lives of these gentle giants. Glaser is a Chicago-based freelance photographer who teaches photography at Chicago's Columbia College. The grainy texture of her 30- by 40-inch black-and-white enlargements evoked the manatee's shadowy world. The 15 photographs presented in this exhibition also revealed the manatee's unique adaptations to its surroundings, its social life, and the threats that human actions pose to the manatee's survival. Mysterious Manatees was organized by and premiered at the National Museum of Natural History.
This Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service exhibition toured from 1997-2001.