The Florida Manatee is as much a part of the history of the Florida Keys as Henry Flagler, or Florida Key Lime Pie.
Throughout the centuries these wonderful and gentle creatures have created as many myths of mermaids and sea monsters as the most agile and creative minds could ever do.
The ancient seafaring mariners, who sailed the waters around the Florida Keys, spoke of amazing and rapturous sightings at sea.
Although I think they must have been hitting the rum a little, as even worldly explorers such as Christopher Columbus observed they “Were not half as beautiful as they are painted!”
So what was it about these clumsy animals that attracted so much wonder and affection?
How could they be mistaken for beautiful and alluring mermaids?
And bringing us right up to date, where can you go today to see these animals, and even get in the water and swim with them?
Do The Manatees Actually Look Like Beautiful Mermaids Then?
Well, the simple answer to this question is no.
Not unless your image of beauty is anything that weighs in at about 800 to 1,200 pounds!
The average adult manatee is generally around 10 feet long, and weighs anywhere between the weights previously mentioned dependent on available vegetation and abundance of food.
If you think about a hippopotamus, but remove the legs and instead replace them with a flat paddle shaped tail, two forelimbs like flippers.
Then give it a rounded nose, similar to a large gopher, then you will have a good idea of what they look like.
Certainly not beautiful like a mermaid I’m sure you’ll agree.
It’s not surprising that they look the way they do as the manatee’s closest relatives in regards to physical characteristics are both the elephant and the hyrax.
You may not have heard of the later, but the Hyrax is a small mammal about the size of a gopher, which is probably why it has the kind of snout that it does.
How Many Breeds Of Manatees Are There?
There are three main types of Manatee, the West Indian, The West African and the Amazonian.
The Florida Manatee that is most commonly found in the southernmost states of America, such as Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia are actually the West Indian type .
Although you would expect these guys to stay close to Central and South America, The Gulf Of Mexico and the Caribbean, these guys are known to migrate, and have been known to pop up and make an appearance even as far north as Massachusetts, but these sightings are quite rare.
The West Indian Manatee (Trichechus Manatus)
These are the largest of the three main breeds that you are going to see around the world, and can get up to 13 feet in length and a whopping 3,300 pounds. They are recognisable due to their greyish or sometimes brown bodies, and the nails that they have protruding from the forelimbs.
Within this family there are two subspecies, being the Florida and Antillean manatee.
The Florida Manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is the species that will see predominately around the Florida Keys, whilst the Antillean to be found in the Caribbean and Central Coast of America.
The animal has been adopted as the official mammal of the state of Florida, which is why you see its slightly smiley looking face on logos, and official literature all the time.
They are not plentiful by any stretch of the imagination, with about 3,000 currently recorded as living in Florida, and another 2,000 in the United States as a whole.
They have been protected by law since 1972.
West African Manatee (Trichechus senegalensis)
This species is to be located off the west coast of Africa, and although very similar in size, weight and appearance as the West Indian species it can be distinguished by a much blunter snout.
Amazonian Manatee(Trichechus inunguis)
This is the smallest of all the manatee family, and although still quite a size will only grow to 9 feet in length and a weight of 1,100 pounds.
Unlike the other species this one can be distinguished by the fact that it also has no nails on its forelimbs and has very smooth skin.
How Fast Can A Manatee Swim?
Manatees are not the quickest of marina animals, and generally will spend their times moving around slowly, with little disruption to the habitat around them.
Although as we say they are most often floating around at a very lethargic pace, this doesn’t mean that they can’t turn into quite quick swimmers if the need arises.
For a very short burst of speed they can quickly go from their normal 3 to 5 miles an hour to 20 miles per hour although they will need to rest afterwards.
That is a lot of weight to force through the waters at that speed after all, and means that they will need to get a lungful’s of fresh air (as they are mammals that can’t survive permanently under the water) .
At top speeds they will need to pop their heads above the water every 30 seconds, whilst at total rest they have been known to stay at the bottom for up to twenty minutes.
What Kind Of Stuff Do They Eat?
Being herbivorous and spending their time in the sea grass beds of Florida, such as the everglades which are an amazing resource for their favourite food substances, the Manatee can eat 10 to 15% of their body weight daily.
And when you weigh as much as they do, and the grass and stuff that they consume is individually as light as it is, you can see that grazing takes up an enormous part of their day.
Florida Manatee enjoying lunch..or is it dinner?
They will eat the occasional small fish or invertebrate however, due to their huge mouths ingesting whatever is around the vegetation at the time, but this is more by fault by design.
Generally the Florida Manatee will eat over sixty different type of plants both above and under the water such as water hyacinth, turtle grass, shoal grass, mangrove leaves, manatee grass, various algae, acorns, and hydrilla.
How Long Does The Florida Manatee Live For?
They have quite a life compared to many things that
live under the water, due to the fact that other then us..yes humans, they don't really have any natural enemies.
This leads to the Manatee living in excess of sixty years in the wild.
But the same as all animals, they are susceptible to illness, disease, gastrointestinal problems pneumonia and other such problems that unfortunately can bring about a reduced life span.
And that is just a few of the natural issues that can effect them, as many of the mammals have also been killed by the hurricanes that tear their way across the Florida keys every now and again.
Recently a record number of Florida Manatee have been killed by eating what experts have called the toxic red tide.
This has been a spread of algae that has killed and reduced not just the population of the Florida Manatee but also the local fish stock too.
Nothing can be done about this underwater killer, but certainly its something that is causing an awful amount of problems to the authorities that protect these gentle creatures.
A poor Injured Manatee In Recovery Pool
Is There Anything Else That Can Hurt The Florida Manatee?
Well we mentioned earlier that there isn't really anything major that can hurt them, but humans and their faultless behaviour is a big concern.
Most manatees deaths are caused by collisions with boats and watercraft, or they can get caught in canal locks and be crushed or drowned.
These are all regrettable, but difficult to prevent, however the ingestion of litter, fishing hooks, and other rubbish isn't.
Just a little more care when passing by their natural habit and these deaths could be prevented quite easily.
Ironically, the biggest threat to the Florida Manatee is the destruction and reclaiming for building of the land and waters where they live.
Where Can I Go To Swim With A Florida Manatee?
The Florida Manatee Enjoys The Company Of A Child
For a great video presented by the Florida Keys Fish and Wildlife service showing how to interact with the Florida Manatees click here
But if you want more than a video and fancy getting close to the real thing then there are places to go, and even companies that arrange for you get into the water and swim with the Florida Manatee.
How close and personal can you get than actually swimming with these creatures?
For just $45 you can get into the water with these amazing animals, and swim around.
And for that price not only do you get the swim, but all the equipment that you could possibly want or need, to make your river adventure perfect.
Address: 498 SE Kings Bay Dr Crystal River, FL 34429
Phone: (352) 564-8687