Until I moved to Florida, I’d never seen a manatee, but soon made their acquaintance at the zoo in Tampa, and once had the chance to swim with some at Crystal River. With their whiskery faces, leathery bodies and tiny eyes, they’re so ugly they’re cute, and they've become one of my favorite animals.
|Photo: USFWS Endangered Species|
Manatees are gentle, passive and slow moving, but can be surprisingly nimble, able to swim upside down, do barrel rolls or stand on their heads or tails. They have no natural enemies, but unfortunately some are injured or killed each year by boats and other human-related causes. Manatees are migratory, and Tampa Bay is home to approximately 200 of them in winter, and around 100 in summer. (There are approximately 3800 manatees total in the U.S., according to savethemanatee.org.) West Indian manatees are protected in the United States under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as well as the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978.
Manatees reproduce slowly, only reaching sexual maturity at age five. One calf is born every two to three years (twins are rare), after a 13-month gestation. Calves stay with their mothers during the first two years of life, so sometimes one mother will be accompanied by both her older and younger calves at the same time.
As strange as it may seem if you’ve gotten a good look at one, legend has it that sailors mistook manatees for the sirens of Greek myth, those temptresses who lured sailors to their deaths on reefs and rocks. This is reflected in the manatee's order name, Sirenia.
The manatee’s closest relatives are the elephant, aardvark and hyrax. The West Indian manatee is also related to the West African manatee, the Amazonian manatee and the dugong.
Another Manatee Viewing Center visitor