The gentle Florida Manatee yet to come

Manatees are regular visitors to the coastal waters and rivers of southwest Florida. If you are in Naples to partake of the diverse ecology, you will certainly want to make manatee-viewing a part of your trip.
Posted by Oliver on Saturday, December 28, 2013
Copyright © Carol Mosley

These gentle mammals are sometimes called “Sea Cows” because of their slow grazing pace and their enormous size, though they are actually most closely related to elephants. Their scientific order is Sirenia and sailors of old may have thought these “sirens of the sea” to be mermaids (albeit without the slender waistline and iridescent tail portrayed in movies). Florida Manatees average 9-10 feet long and usually weigh in at 1,000 – 1,500 pounds, though they can get even larger. Females tend to be larger than males.

Manatees have a brownish gray color and thick, wrinkly skin. Its face has a “hippo-like” bulbous and bristly snout, a gaping hole for a mouth that sucks in its food, and a friendly expression befitting its gentle nature. They have no canine teeth, just molar-type stubs used to mash plants. They have two front flippers and a paddle-like tail that they use to propel themselves.

In the summer, Manatees are frequently seen along Florida’s southwest coast. They stay in the shallow waters, whether in the salty, brackish (where salty and fresh water mixes) or fresh water. When the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean temperatures cool in the winter months, they head inland to the canals, rivers, bays, and freshwater springs, where the water temperatures remain more constant. Manatees especially like to frequent the warm discharge water found near power plants. Though manatees generally travel in groups of three to eight, in particularly cold periods there may be as many as a few hundred congregating at a discharge site.

Inland, as in rivers and canals, they graze on various water plants and while on the coasts they eat sea grasses with a few invertebrates and small fish that get caught inadvertently in the floating clumps. Manatees are opportunistic eaters and will eat a large variety of different plants.

They generally move at a pace of about 5 mph and need to surface every few minutes when expending any energy at all. They can rest on the shallow bottom for as long as 15 minutes and typically prefer waters at a depth of about 4-8 feet.

Manatees usually reach sexual maturity at around five years old and give birth to one calf every two to five years. Gestation is about twelve months and they are born under water. The mother nudges the baby (usually just one) to the surface for its first breath of air. The calf is about 4 feet long and weighs about 65 pounds. Within a short while, the baby is able to swim on its own. Though the young nurse from the mother’s mammary glands under the pit of her front flippers until as old as two, they begin eating plant matter a few weeks after being born.

Manatees are not particularly social, though they do form some strong social bonds within the groups, especially between a cow and her calf or in gender groups. There are no dominant leaders, (except perhaps in mating rights) but sometimes the actions of one will be followed by other group members without any coercion necessary.

Manatees communicate with each other through the use of all five senses. Despite the lack of earlobes, they hear quite well. They emit a range of humanly audible sounds and may be able to hear low range sounds not detectable by humans.  These sounds they emit are not used for echolocation, as with bats, but rather as a means of communication within the group. The duration, volume, pitch and fervor provide the information to be communicated.

It is estimated that there are around 5,000 manatees in Florida as of early 2014. They have no natural predators though, at one time, they were hunted for their meat, hides, bones and fat. The threats to them now are from boat propellers, frigid temperatures, red tide, getting caught in flood control devices, becoming entangled in fishing line or swallowing hooks or other debris. Sometimes manatees die from diseases, such as pneumonia. But the greatest threat to the Florida Manatee is loss of habitat.

They are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, which makes it illegal to harass or harm them.

Be a responsible boater.  Obey all speeds. Look for signs of “pooling” in the water that indicates manatees are underneath. Remember, they surface frequently for air, so have a spotter watch for them. Use propeller guards so they can’t cut into the manatee if run over. But remember that blunt trauma can be caused by collision with the hull, so go slow and be aware; that’s the way to float.

Keep your gear and garbage under control. Fishing line and hooks are an obvious danger to manatees, but plastic and other garbage can cause just as much harm.

Hands off! If you encounter a manatee DO NOT touch it or disturb it in any way. You should NEVER think it is okay to try to ride a manatee. Besides being illegal to harass a manatee, it is just wrong. However, there are locations in Collier and neighboring counties where you can view manatees in their natural environment. Port of the Islands Eco-tours near Marco Island guarantees you’ll see manatees or you don’t pay. In the winter, the power plant discharge site in Ft. Myers is a great viewing spot. But there are many viewing locations depending on your interests and the time of year you visit. Just ask around.

There are some passive measures you can take as well. You can join groups that actively work on Florida Manatee protection, such as Save the Manatee organization. You can buy a license plate for your Florida auto that uses the funds for research and habitat preservation. Buy books for your kids and your kids’ schools so our young ones can learn how to do their share and join in the effort.

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