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The Florida Manatee

A Close-up View of a Florida Manatee Underwater
A Florida Manatee at Homosassa Springs

The Florida manatee isn't merely a manatee in Florida, but is actually a proper biological classification of an animal native to this state.

The manatee belongs to the biological order Sirenia. Sirenians include three species of manatees, as well as the dugong of Asia and Australia, the only surviving species of its line.

The three manatee species include the Amazonian manatee, the West African manatee, and the West Indian manatee. The West Indian manatee is divided into two sub-species: the Florida manatee and the Antillean manatee.

So, according to biologists, Florida has its very own manatee.

How Many Florida Manatees are There

According to figures from the Save the Manatee Club, Florida's minimum wild manatee population as of January 2011 is 4,480.

But as is also true with a lot of humans, many manatees spend their winters in Florida but travel somewhere else in the summertime.

In fact, Florida manatees are known to travel up the Atlantic coast all the way to Virginia (in one case a specific Florida manatee was even found in Rhode Island) and along the Gulf coast all the way out to Texas.

But when summer gives way to the cooler months, and water temperatures start to dip, the Florida manatees, not being able to survive very long in water colder than 68 degrees Fahrenheit, make their way back to their warm-water refuges here in Florida.

Those warm-water refuges include our famous Florida springs, known for having a constant water temperature somewhere between 70 and 72 degrees.

But Florida manatees don't seem to care where their warm water comes from. Over the years, they've taken to spending their winters in the warm-water areas surrounding some of the state's electrical power plants. So, when Florida Power and Light decided to close its Riviera Beach power plant, they went to great lengths to provide special heaters to maintain the warm-water levels the wintering manatees were accustomed to finding here.

Snorkel With Manatees

A popular wintertime activity is to snorkel with manatees or otherwise swim with manatees. Crystal River near Homosassa Springs is one place where you can do either of these.

Anyone in the water with manatees, however, should observe some basic rules when attempting to interact with these creatures. What you want to avoid is harassing the manatees because that can harm them.

I'm pretty sure that most of us who'd want to snorkel with manatees just want the thrill of a manatee encounter, and harbor no intention of harmfully harassing them, but harassment can include some things you might not be aware of.

In fact, when it comes to interacting with manatees, the term harassment means any activity that might interrupt a manatee's normal activity.

Some examples of manatee harassment include diving after manatees, chasing them, riding them, surrounding them, grabbing hold of their flippers, or sometimes even just petting them.

Imagine you're a Florida manatee spending the winter in a Florida spring where you're enjoying your life doing typical manatee things such as eating grass, swimming, diving, coming up for air, and so on. Now, along comes a boat, and several dozen excited people hop into the water--each one intent on interacting with you in some way. First, they just come up to you and snap photos, then they want to start petting on you. The next thing you know, you're surrounded by these two-legged creatures whose intentions you're not sure of and their legs are kicking in all directions. One of them decides to have his photo taken with you, so he grabs your flipper to "shake hands." Now, say you happen to be a female manatee with a calf, and the swimmers separate you from your calf and start "playing" with it. Imagine the stress you'd feel. What if you then couldn't relocate your calf? Now, imagine this going on day in and day out. Why, you'd never get any peace. So, you might decide to abandon the spring for waters too cold for you to survive in.

The proper way to snorkel with manatees is to remain still on the surface and watch them from a distance. If they come up to you, that's fine. Just look, don't touch. Think of yourself as an unobtrusive observer who's there just to watch. That way, you can enjoy a manatee encounter without harming them.

The following informative video is by Tracy Colson, who runs Nature Coast Kayak Tours in Crystal River, and was kind enough to grant me specific permission to embed her video on this site. Tracy has learned a lot about the Florida manatee by volunteering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In this video, she does an outstanding job capturing in pixels many irresponsible interactions by humans against Crystal River manatees, showing clearly the kinds of harmful behavior to be avoided when swimming with manatees.

In my opinion, that video really made its point. Swimming with manatees should be done in a responsible manner. In all my wilderness experiences, I can think of no example in which it's a good idea to feed, pet, harass, or allow any healthy, self-sustaining wild animal in its natural habitat to become too accustomed to us humans, whether those animals are bears, alligators, sharks, coyotes, raccoons, or whatever. Some animals can become dependent on humans, losing their ability to survive in the wilds. Others, having lost their natural fear of humans, or having come to associate humans with food, may end up attacking, even eating someone.

The Manatee is Endangered

The Manatee is an endangered species, meaning they could go extinct. Florida manatees face natural as well as human-related dangers.

Natural dangers include:

  • Cold weather
  • The toxins produced by the red tide algae
  • Diseases, including pneumonia and gastrointestinal ailments

Human-related dangers (and how we can reduce them) include:

  • Collision with boats. Far, far too many Florida manatee deaths are attributed to human activity. Collisions with boats and other watercraft are the leading cause of preventable manatee deaths. Since manatees must come up for air every few minutes, they tend to hang about near the water's surface. Plus, they like the same shallow waters where people often run their boats, jet skis, and other vessels. It's a sad fact that many, if not most, manatees have propeller scars on their backs. In fact, manatees with propeller scars are so numerous, scientist use scar patterns to help identify specific individuals.

    To help prevent manatee injury and deaths, responsible boaters will want to be especially careful when in waters frequented by manatees. Polarized sunglasses may help you spot manatees resting or moving near the surface. Give a manatee a break. Obey all manatee speed zones.

  • The Swirls of Florida Manatees in the Open Water
    When Boating, Look for Tell-tale Swirls on the Water Made by Manatees

  • Contact with Litter. Florida manatees sometimes die from swallowing or becoming tangled in carelessly discarded human trash. Monofilament line, the plastic loops that hold a six-pack together, plastic bags, and fish hooks all cause problems for unsuspecting manatees.

    The obvious thing for us to do here is not to litter the water, especially with the items just mentioned. Discard these things properly, and you could save the life of a manatee or some other creature.

  • Swimming Around Locks and Flood Gates. Manatees can die from being crushed in locks or gates, or from drowning caused by strong water flows near these areas. To help prevent harm to manatees, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as the South Florida Water Managment District are apparently making use of sensor devices to stop gate openings or closings when a manatee is nearby. From what I can tell, these sensors are similar to the ones that prevent a garage door from closing when something--child, dog, cat, whatever--gets in the way.

  • Harassment. Harassment means any activity by humans that interrupts a manatee's normal activity. Harassment-- as noted in the section above--can lead manatees to alter their natural behavior, possibly causing them harm.

More Manatee Facts

Manatee Size.The Florida manatee, a close relative of the elephant, averages about 10 feet in length with an average weight near 1,000 pounds. The largest may reach a length up to 13 feet and weigh as much as 3,500 pounds.

Manatee Diet. Manatees are plant eaters. To get enough calories from plants, a manatee may consume daily about 10 to 15 percent of its body weight in food. Some of the manatee's water requirements may come from eating these plants, as well as from drinking.

Manatees spend most of their lives in relatively shallow water, and can live in either fresh water, saltwater, or brackish water. These herbivorous animals prefer the calm, relatively current-free waters of rivers, bays, and estuaries, staying mostly in water depths of about three to seven feet because that's where plants grow. Seldom do manatees venture into waters greater than 20 feet deep.

Fresh-water requirements. Manatees can go for long periods without drinking fresh water, which is one reason they're able to survive in salt water. Exactly how they get fresh water while living in saltwater areas is a mystery to me. They may get some water from their plant diet.

I've been told that manatees in saltwater sometimes drink by skimming the fresh rain water that can lie on the surface immediately after a rainstorm. Freshwater is lighter than saltwater so this may be true. Apparently, they lie facing skyward and drink carefully from the first half inch of so of water on the surface. I can't vouch for how truthful this is, but it does make sense.

Breathing Habits. Manatees like all mammals must breathe air. On average, a manatee comes up for air around every three to five minutes, but if they happen to be just quietly resting, they can go without breathing for up to 20 minutes. When engaged in vigorous activity, they must breathe around every 30 seconds.

The Cycle of Life. A manatee may live to be as old as 60 years, even longer, but that long life is unusual. Most don't make it over 30, and a great number never survive past 10 years.

Male manatees reach sexual maturity at around nine years of age. Females mature at about age five. Manatees aren't choosy about their partner and mate rather indiscrimately. Calves can be born at any time of year, but are most often born in the spring or summer. A mother manatee nurses her calf from teats behind her flippers for about a year or two after birth.

A female will produce a calf normally only once every two to five years, and the gestation period is near a year. This slow reproduction cycle makes the manatee population vulnerable to dwindling, especially considering how many are lost each year to human-related deaths.

With no natural enemies, manatees don't live in herds or pods as do some other marine mammals, such as whales or dolphins. Rather, manatees tend to be more solitary creatures. Apparently, among manatees, there's no need for the protection of a large group.

Manatees communicate with sounds perhaps best described as chirps, whistles, or squeaks. These vocalizations express a range of emotions such as fear, anger, or sexual excitement, as well as help manatees maintain contact with one another when in water of low visibility. Unlike dolphins and whales, manatees don't seem to have the ability to use sound underwater to navigate, a process called echolocation.

Closing Thoughts

We in Florida are fortunate to be able to observe these giant but gentle creatures. But to continue doing so, we must take care in our on-the-water and in-the-water activities. Proper caretaking on our part can have enormous and positive consequences for the survival of our Florida manatees.

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