Florida manatees are gray in color, but may appear to have green backs do to algae growing on their skin. They have arm-like flippers and flat, circle-shaped tails. Manatees have two nostrils on the the tops of their “noses,” and have short “whiskers” on their faces. When looking at a manatee’s face from the side, they look quite odd and unusual; however, when looking at their face straight on, they look cute and friendly, which may be one of the main reasons why many people love manatees.
Fish or Not?
Although manatees may look somewhat like large fish, they are actually mammals. What are the differences? Below is a list of them:
Manatees breathe air through two nostrils on their “noses” while fish breathe underwater with gills.
Manatees have some hair on their bodies while fish have no hair at all.
Like manatees, some fish give live birth, but unlike fish, mother manatees produce milk for their babies (called calves).
Some people believe that the mermaids told of by sailors of old may have been manatees. It may seem as though it would be easy to distinguish a manatee from a half woman half fish, but a sailor who’s been out on a ship in the ocean for several years could have seen a manatee and imagined it was part woman. Who knows?
Florida manatees are herbivores, eating only plants. The main plant they eat is sea grasses; however, they will also consume about sixty other aquatic plant species.
Range and Habitat
Florida manatees can be found on coasts from Florida to Virginia, including some freshwater habitats (such as lakes and springs). Two of the most popular places to find Florida manatees is Blue Springs and Crystal River.
I have often observed Florida manatees swimming in shallow waters over submerged sandbars and mud bottoms near sea grasses and other aquatic vegetation.
Unlike cetaceans [link], manatees do not have a layer of blubber for warmth, so they must live in waters that are over 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Last February, when a cold snap hit Florida, nineteen manatees searched for warmer waters. Unfortunately, they ended up congregating in a drainage pipe and became stuck! Click here to read about how rescuers successfully saved them.
Size and Weight
The average adult manatee measures about ten feet long and weighs 800 to over 1,000 pounds! Baby manatees (called calves) measure about 47 inches long and weigh about 66 pounds at birth.
Although an animal the size of a manatee could seriously damage a person, manatees are slow moving and very gentle. It is true that they can swim fairly fast; however, they tend to slowly move across the bottom “grazing” on aquatic plants, just like a cow of the ocean. This is probably how manatees got their other common name, “sea cow.”
Dangers to Manatees
Manatees are slow moving and have practically no defenses. Thankfully for the manatees, they tend to live where the major predators of marine mammals (mainly large sharks and killer whales) don’t; however, they have more threats than just predators.
Probably a manatee’s biggest danger is careless boaters. When a boat collides into a manatee, the results are often fatal for the manatee. Because manatees are slow moving animals, they have trouble getting out of the way quick enough when a speedy boat is coming towards them.
Careless boat drivers aren’t a manatee’s only threat. A manatee can become tangled in large pieces of fishing net afloat in the ocean and drown. They can also end up with fishing hooks in their mouths when a fisherman accidentally gets his hook caught in sea grasses (a manatee’s main food source) or carelessly throws one overboard when it is no longer wanted.
Below are some ways that you can help manatees:
Never throw trash into the ocean or waterways.
Obey boating laws regarding manatees.
Be on the lookout for manatees while boating and slow down if you see one to let it pass by, or go far around it.
Do not feed, give water to, or touch a wild manatee. This may get them used to being around humans, which will make them more vulnerable to being injured by boats.
Do not chase down a manatee or harass it in any other way
Florida Manatee Migration
Springs are always the same temperature: about 72 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a temperature that manatees can tolerate. In the winter time, the springs are often warmer than the oceans and rivers, so manatees will live in them for the winter. Blue Springs is a popular area where manatees are often seen during the winter months.
In summer, the oceans and rivers are warmer than the springs, so manatees will migrate there to spend the summer. Each year, manatees migrate back and fourth from fresh to salt waters seeking warmth.
Other Good Resources on Florida Manatees
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Indian_manatee (web page)
www.dolphins.org/manatee_factsheet (web page)
Marine Mammals of the World by the National Audubon Society (book)