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West Indian (Florida) Manatee

Rescued manatee with diver at SeaWorld
Rescued manatee with diver at SeaWorld

I remember the first time we saw a manatee, when we visited SeaWorld many years ago and we all fell in love with them instantly. The manatee is extremely gentle with a large rotund body, a small whiskery nose, a large paddle-shaped tail and two small flippers.

After seeing the ‘Last Generation’ exhibit we went on one of the behind the scenes tours and saw what can happen to them. It was sad to hear of their plight and to realise that they were in danger from mankind’s own actions.

Today, it is thought that there are only around 6,200 West Indian (Florida) manatees left in the existence.

Many manatees die as a direct result of humans; either through collisions with watercraft, being crushed or trapped in flood control or canal gates, ingesting rubbish like fish hooks and monofilament line or as a result of our destruction of their natural habitat. Large numbers of them also die from the cold and a toxic algae bloom called “Red Tide”

In 2006, over 400 manatees were found dead, the highest number ever recorded at that time. However in 2013 around 830 deaths were recorded and in the last five years over 2,800 manatees have died.

When we heard of the Save The Manatee organisation, we realised we could do something to help and we bought our daughter a membership as one of her birthday presents and have continued each year. Why not think about joining their Adopt a Manatee program as part of a loved ones holiday gift.

A few years ago we got to see ‘our’ manatee Rosie when we visited Homosassa Springs for the first time and were thrilled to finally meet her. Sadly she died in 2015 of cancer, she was believed to be in her 50s.

The manatee’s closest relative is actually the elephant and like the elephant it consumes huge amounts of vegetation, in the manatee’s case, aquatic plants. A manatee typically eats between 10 and 15% of their body weight each day.

An average adult is around 10 feet (3 metres) long, weight around 800 to 1200 pounds (350–550 kgs) and can stay submerged for 3 to 5 minutes on average.

Manatees can be found all around the coastlines of Florida and in shallow slow moving rivers and river estuaries. They can cope with fresh, brackish and salt water and prefer water between 3–7 ft (1–2m) deep which makes them very vulnerable to watercraft. Off the coast they will go in water up to 10–16 feet (3–5m) deep.

They need warm water so in winter they tend to head for warm rivers and springs as well as outlets from coastal power stations. Some of the best places to see manatees in the wild, particularly in the winter, is at Homosassa Springs and Crystal River (where you can swim with them) on the west coast or the Blue Spring State Park on the St. Johns River. They can also be seen all year round at Disney’s Epcot Living Seas Pavilion or at SeaWorld in Orlando.

Waters in springs like the Blue Spring remain at a pleasantly warm (for manatees) 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Centigrade).

At one time there were five species of manatee, namely the West Indian or Florida manatee, the West African manatee, the Amazonian manatee, the dugong from the Indo-Pacific region and the giant 30ft Steller’s sea cow from the Bering Sea. Alas the Steller’s sea cow was hunted to extinction in 1768.

Federal Protection of Manatees

Today, the West Indian manatees in the United States are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which make it illegal to annoy, harass, disturb, hunt, capture, or kill them.

There have been repeated attempts by business interests to get the manatees downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” despite the high mortality rate in recent years.

In May 2014, a pro-business group called the Pacific Legal Foundation, acting on behalf of Save Crystal River Inc. and the Florida Home Builders Association, sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for not acting on their own recommendations to change the manatee protected status to “threatened”. In early 2015 the Wildlife Service published a status review recommending the downgrading to “threatened”.

A controversial computer model predicted that the manatee population could double over the next 50 years and on March 30, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded manatees from “endangered” to “threatened” due they say to the increase in population in recent years. Some officials dispute the computer model and are trying to get the decision reversed.

This decision was taken despite the fact that 472 manatees deaths were recorded in 2016 with a record number of manatees killed by boats, over 100 in total. In 2017 they faired no better with 538 deaths recorded.

When Florida manatees were listed by the federal government as an endangered species in 1967, there were only an estimated 600 animals alive.

The manatee still remains protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.