Manatees in Florida – Elephants of the Sea
The West Indian Manatee resides in and around Florida during the colder months of the year. Manatees are mammals and tend to be very seal-like in appearance. They normally have a greyish-brown colour, with thick wrinkled skin, and stiff whiskers on their upper lip. Most manatees have algae growing on their skin, which provides them with protection against the sun. Their flat tails are used as propellers as they move through shallow water, with their front flippers guiding the way. Even though manatees have small eyes and no visible ears they also have very good eyesight and hearing.
These large animals are herbivores and their diet consists mainly of sea grass and fresh water vegetables. They eat between 10-15% of their body’s weight each day using large molars to grind their food. These teeth will fall out and are replaced after they get worn out. The manatee population around Florida is estimated to be about 5000 animals, which are scattered in the warm shallow waters in rivers, bays or near the coast. In addition to the salt, brackish or fresh water that they live in freely in the area many are kept in captivity, for their own protection, since they have become an endangered species.
Manatees are naturally slow moving, gentle creatures and they spend the majority of their day resting and feeding. Their ability to communicate with each other via squeals and movements, such as rolling around when happy, can provide real pleasure to those that they allow to swim and snorkel close by. A full grown adult is between 10 and 12 ft. long, normally weighing between 1500-1800lbs with many growing to be as large as 3000lbs. Their lifespan can be anywhere from 50 to 60 years, with females normally becoming sexually mature by the time they are 9. Manatees go through a gestation period of between 12 and 13 months, after which they give birth to one calf (twins are extremely rare). The baby weighs between 60 and 70 lbs at birth, and the mother will continue to nurse and guide the infant until she believes that it will be able to take care of itself.
The sea cows normally choose to live in water which is between 3 and 7 ft. deep, using the coast as a breeding and sheltering area. Visitors to the Florida coast are surprised at the curiosity that these animals display, and love the fact that they initiate contact. Even though swimming and snorkelling around the manatees is encouraged, it is not wise to feed them as this makes them unable to survive well in the wild. Divers are not normally able to get very close to the animals because the bubbles caused from the gas scares them away.
The biggest danger to manatees around Florida is humans and, even though it is illegal to do so, many of them are still being hunted and killed for their meat and hide. The species continues to persevere and with the help of the laws which have been put into place to protect them, it is believed that there will soon be many more in the waters off the Florida coast.