Manatees - Up Close and Personal

uring a recent trip to Ft. Pierce in South Florida, I had a chance to spend some time observing and communicating with a family of manatees (“sea cows”).

manatee scarring from propeller blades

Manatees are fascinating creatures. Slow-moving and gentle (the only aquatic mammals that eat a completely vegetarian diet), they are found in only a few places in the world; I felt lucky to see them in their natural habitat. Growing up to 13 feet in length and weighing over a ton, they have a flexible “prehensile” lip that they use gather food and eat, as well as using it for communicating with each other. They have no natural predators but are greatly endangered nonetheless, due to past hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, difficultes with reproduction and tragically, boat traffic; they frequently get cut by propellor blades, since they gravitate towards warm, shallow water instead of the deep ocean. Sadly, both parents in the group I observed exhibited these scars. Many manatees die every year from these wounds. In just Florida alone, it’s about 100 every year out of a population of less than 500.

I was able to observe them from a dock at a marina, where they were floating about 30 feet away. Two parents and one small calf, which is typical. They don’t move much — just hang in a sort of “suspended animation.” I asked them if they would come closer so that I could see them better. They eventually came to within about 18 feet, but this took the better part of 45 minutes, as they move extremely slowly. As I sat there I could feel what it was like to be inside their bodies (I am quite used to doing this with the animals I work with) and it was such an interesting sensation of a very slowed-down metabolism. I’ve worked with reptiles and amphibians before, but this was a feeling almost like being asleep…they felt so slow, calm and docile.

The parents took turns feeding on the bottom for long periods of time while one stayed with the calf, and whenever one would return, they all touched noses for a long greeting. It’s clear to me that they are very gentle animals as well as devoted parents.

If you are interested in learning more about manatees, here are some links: