Mad for Manatees

February 25, 2011

Today a friend and I visited the Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach, FL. Every year from Nov. 1 to April 15 visitors gather to catch a glimpse of these oddly appealing creatures at this state and federally designated manatee sanctuary. Manatees typically gather in the clean, warm water discharge canal between Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station and the viewing center when the temperature of the bay falls below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s warming up early this year, and we waited a little too long to visit—we only caught sight of five or six manatees still hanging out in the canal.

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
The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, a warm-blooded marine mammal. Manatees are able to move freely between salt, brackish and fresh water, and are found in Florida’s coastal waters, rivers and springs. The average adult manatee weighs between 800 and 1200 pounds and can measure up to 10 feet long. Manatees spend most of their days eating, sleeping and playing. (I want to be a manatee!) They eat around 60 to 100 pounds of aquatic plants per day.

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 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

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  1. Looks like a fun day! Love your shot of the brown pelican!

  2. I saw a manatee when on a houseboat belonging to one of my husband's friends years and years ago. I've never forgotten them.

  3. Laure--It was. Unfortunately, I had to hunt down a manatee photo since the one shot I took revealed some brownish-gray blobs in the water that could have been anything.

  4. Timaree--They are unique and unforgettable creatures, aren't they?

  5. Swimming with the manatees - now that sounds like fun! Closest relative the elephant? Odd but interesting. You write the most interesting things!

  6. Thanks, Cheryl. One thing I especially like about writing the blog is I get to learn about so many interesting things and share what I learn with others.

  7. They aren't very pretty, but somehow that makes them all the more endearing. It's nice to know they can just swim happily along and aren't a prospective meal for someone else, but at over 800 pounds that would be quite a meal. I don't think I've actually ever seen one, so thanks for sharing your experience.

  8. Danielle--You're welcome. They have a certain charm, don't they?