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Marine Miracle

The Memphis manatee is memorialized in a children's book.

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It's not every day that someone spots a manatee swimming in the fresh waters of the Mississippi River.

But that's exactly what happened to James Jackson, who spotted the sea mammal on an October morning in 2006 while fishing with a friend along the city's northern riverbank.

"I noticed this huge shadow on my right side. I thought it was a miniature submarine," Jackson said. "I tapped my face to make sure I wasn't dreaming."

Jackson's experience has been fictionalized in the children's book Murphy the Manatee Visits Memphis, written by Memphian Erin Thorpe.

The book, released in September, officially launched last Saturday with a reading and booksigning at the Children's Museum of Memphis.

Jackson commissioned Thorpe, principal at the First Class Montessori School in Midtown, to write about the unusual encounter in a way that would be appealing to kids.

Thorpe said she inflated Jackson's manatee experiences to sound more adventurous and fun. Jackson and his friend were changed from adults to boys, and Murphy the Manatee visits tourist attractions and Elvis Presley.

From his home in Florida, Murphy writes letters to Elvis, whom he considers his greatest icon. One day, Murphy receives an invitation from the King to visit Memphis and Graceland. This is what brings the manatee upstream, where he meets with two boys from the Bluff City.

"Murphy took a trip to Beale Street and learned about barbecue," Thorpe said. "Manatees are vegetarians, but he liked the smell of barbecue. From there, they decide to go to Graceland. In the meantime, they're getting [news] coverage, because people are starting to report that there is a manatee in Memphis."

The real-life manatee, dubbed "Manny," was found more than 700 miles upriver from his home in the Gulf of Mexico. A rescue crew from SeaWorld Orlando was quickly dispatched to Memphis to relocate the 1,000-pound mammal back to the gulf, but their search was fruitless. The manatee was believed to have left the area, but it was found dead a couple months later in McKellar Lake.

Reflecting back on the event, Jackson said he regrets informing people of the manatee's presence.

"It was so peaceful, but as soon as all the media and boats came, that thing started heading right for the main river," Jackson said.

Thorpe said children would be able to relate to Murphy's child-like persona, and they'd learn valuable lessons from the book.

"Murphy has a lot of determination," Thorpe said. "He sticks to his beliefs and keeps hope of what his dreams are. I think that will really inspire children. [They can] also be proud of [how] their hometown is portrayed in the story."

Although they're not releasing details yet, Jackson and Thorpe said there's more to come with Murphy.

The book is available for purchase on Amazon.com for $15.95. It can also be purchased on MurphytheManatee.com.

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