As winter is approaching and waters are getting colder around the country, manatees are slowly making their way down south to the warmer waters of Florida. Manatee season is upon us.
(Photo by Paul Nicklen for National Geographic).
West Indian manatees can weigh up to 1,200 pounds or more, and actually share a common ancestor with elephants. The subspecies you will find in the USA is the Florida manatee. These guys are found into coastal areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the state, and come winter, they will congregate at freshwater springs, man-made canals, and power plant outflows.
Manatees are herbivores and feed on seagrass (their favorite being Syringodium filiforme) and other vegetation, with no need to hunt and catch prey. They have no predator other than crazy boaters being a little too excited to be in Florida.
Studies have shown that manatees actually are as good as dolphins when it comes to experimental tasks. They are just a bit harder to motivate as they don’t really care for fish as a reward!
(Up close and personal with a little guy I’ve had the chance to swim with a few times while working on seagrass surveys. He is extremely curious, and will stare at us while we work. Photo by David Roche)
How did they get so big? Firstly, a larger body makes it easier for them to keep warm in the water, especially since they have a very slow metabolism. It also provides room for the large digestive system necessary to process giant quantities of low-protein, low-calorie food. A manatee consumes on average 10% of its body weight daily!
While their eyesight is similar to that of a cow, they do have a fantastic sense of touch. Their mastery of the tactile world comes from the thick, bristly hairs found on their nose called whiskers, or vibrissae. Unlike normal hair fibers, each vibrissa is a finely calibrated sensory device, which transmit the information to the brain via hundreds of nerve fibers.
(Close of up vibrissae on a manatee. Photo by Diane Lewis)
Manatees also have great hearing capacities, and some argue that they do hear better than humans. They are able to hear very sharply at high frequencies, but can also ‘hear’ very suddle vibrations in the water, potentially by using the vibrissae on their bodies.
These animals are currently listed as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), as they tend to hang out in high-traffic areas and encounter a very high risk of boat collision and propeller injuries. Nevertheless, FWS is currently reviewing a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation, representing a group of waterfront property owners, to downgrade their status from endangered to threatened.
(A manatee with many propeller scars. Photo source.)
Manatee zone enforcement started on November 15th around Florida, and wildlife officials have warned boaters to slow down and to keep an eye out for them while driving in the state waterways.
- Can I swim with a manatee?
Yes you can!
You may encounter manatees in the wild with a little bit of luck, but your best bet is to travel to one of many springs in Florida where these gentle giants congregate.You can check out this website that lists a few different springs around Florida.
And remember, just look, don’t touch! It is actually forbidden under law to harass manatees; that includes chasing, feeding, riding or poking them, amongst others. Check out some more guidelines for manatee viewing highlighted by FWC.
(Here is my favorite manatee photo-bombing me while I’m conducting a seagrass survey. Photo by David Roche)