- Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 September 2012 13:12
- Written by Patti Lavell
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If you’ve ever had the extreme pleasure of seeing a manatee in its natural habitat then you already know what beautiful creatures they are. If you haven’t been so fortunate, allow me to share some manatee love.
Let’s start with a bit of biology. Manatees belong to the scientific order Sirenia, which is made up of the following species: the West Indian manatee, the Amazonian manatee, the dugong, the West African manatee and the Steller's sea cow, which sadly is extinct. The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee and its closest living relative is the elephant. No kidding. Scientists believe that the manatee evolved from a plant-eating wading animal.
Unfortunately, not a lot is known about the population of West Indian manatees except for those living in Florida’s waters. The largest population of West Indian manatees is found in the United States, primarily in Florida. There are small populations of them along the east coast of Mexico and South America. All sirenian species in the world are listed as endangered or vulnerable and humans are to blame for their decreasing numbers.
Let’s throw in a little history for good measure. In ancient mythology, the term "siren" referred to sea nymphs who sang mesmerizing songs to lure sailors and their ships to treacherous rocks and shipwreck. It’s likely that throughout history, sailors who thought they were seeing mermaids were probably seeing manatees or dugongs. Hard to believe? Spend a few months at sea without seeing a single woman and then tell me that the manatee doesn’t have an uncanny resemblance to the human form. Perhaps we have manatees and dugongs to thank for perpetuating the myth of mermaids.
Sirenians are the only completely aquatic mammals that are herbivores, which means they eat plants. Only plants. Because of their diet, all sirenians are found in relatively shallow waters where sunlight can penetrate and stimulate plant growth. Manatees will happily live in slow moving salt or fresh water canals, bays and estuaries as long as there’s enough sea grass or other plant life to allow them to graze all day.
The biggest threat to the endangered Florida manatee is man and that should make you nauseas. Careless boaters who disregard warning signs and no wake zones often kill or seriously maim manatees with their propellers or their hull. Large vessels like barges have trapped manatees between their hull and the water bottom, drowning or crushing the poor creatures. Some die from ingesting monofilament line, fish hooks or trash. Others drown because of entanglement in fishing nets or crab pot lines. Even more disgusting is that some manatees have died at the hands of poachers.
According to the mortality statistics reported by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, 453 manatees died in 2011. An alarming number of those deaths were the result of boaters. The numbers currently being reported for 2012, which go from January 1 through August 31, indicate that 264 manatees have been killed. 66 of those were the direct result of boaters while 84 of them died from unknown causes. This needs to stop before the Florida manatee suffers the same fate as the sea cow.
When you see the enormous bulk of a manatee it’s hard to believe that they have very little body fat but it’s true. This lack of fat makes them very susceptible to cold water temperatures. When manatees experience prolonged exposure to water temperatures below 68°F (20°C), they often develop a condition called cold-stress syndrome which can be fatal. The effects of the condition may be come on quickly as they did during the winter of 2009/2010, when parts of southern Florida suffered the coldest twelve day stretch on record with temperatures below 45°F(7.2°C). Record low temperatures caused manatees to succumb rapidly to hypothermia. Over 500 manatees died during the cold snap in January 2010.
Clearly, we have no control over Mother Nature and while about sixty manatees were rescued during those unusually cold days in 2010, it wasn’t humanly possible to prevent all 500 manatees from succumbing to the cold. However, there are a lot of things we can do to prevent the Florida manatee’s numbers from dwindling.
Passive observation, watching from a distance, is the best way to protect the manatee. If you see manatees while swimming or boating, please follow these common sense rules:
- Don’t enter designated manatee sanctuaries for any reason.
- Look, but don’t touch. I know this is very hard because I struggle with it myself but please observe manatees from the surface of the water and at a distance but do not touch them.
- Avoid excessive noise and splashing because the manatee may become stressed or afraid.
- Use snorkel gear when watching manatees. The sound of scuba gear may cause them to leave the area.
- Don’t feed manatees or give them water no matter what other people have told you.
You actually have the most to gain by remaining at a distance. By quietly observing manatees, you will get a rare opportunity to see the natural behavior of these endangered and beautiful animals.
Be aware that the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 makes it illegal to harass manatees in any way. They are protected further under the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. Conviction at the federal level is punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 and/or one year in prison. Conviction at the state level will get you a maximum fine of $500 and/or imprisonment for up to sixty days. For serious offenders, the State of Florida can also pursue prosecution under federal law.
But beyond the fact that we shouldn’t be breaking laws, human interactions with manatees can cause harm. Manatees are wild animals and for their own protection, they must remain so. There is evidence to support the argument that because so many people give manatees food and water from their boats, many manatees have lost their natural fear of humans and their boats. In fact, some manatees see boats as food sources and you know what can happen when a slow moving manatee gets too close to a boat. The manatee always loses.
Resist the temptation to interact with manatees and instead watch them from a distance. The reward for letting the manatee stay wild will be an increase in the manatee population and hopefully one day the removal from the endangered list. It’s a goal that the human population should be shooting for. Please do your part.