The Gentle and Threatened Manatee
By: Jacqueline Bodnar
Many of us are bundling up because of the cooler weather, but it is nothing compared to what the
manatee faces each winter. In January 2010, over 100 manatees died in Florida, and 77 of them are believed to have died because of cold stress. The number of manatees that died during the cold snap we experienced last year beat the record that had been set the year prior, when 56 manatees died from cold stress.
Fighting to Survive
According to the Save the Manatee Club, there are approximately 3,800 manatees left in the United States. Because the species is so threatened, manatees are protected under both state and federal laws, preventing people from being permitted to harass, hunt, capture, or kill them. Even then, these gentle aquatic mammal faces challenges in the winter and throughout the year that they may simply not be able to overcome.
“Human pressures such as watercraft and loss of habitat are the manatee’s greatest threats,” explains Chad Truxall, director of education at the Marine Discovery Center, located in New Smyrna Beach. “The best way for us to protect manatees and other marine creatures is to protect the habitat in which they live. If the habitat is healthy (high diversity of plants and animals, good water quality, plenty of food, free of invasive species), the manatee populations will thrive.”
Manatee are large, gray, plant-eating animals that are slow-moving and spends their days eating, resting
and traveling. They live in shallow-water areas, such as slow-moving rivers, estuaries, canals, and coastal areas. They like to be around seagrass beds, but are also migratory. Spending their winters in Florida, they can be seen as far away as Massachusetts and Texas during the summer.
“Manatees are herbivores and travel great distances, both for food and in preparation for cold weather. Thus they depend on healthy fresh, brackish and saltwater ecosystems for their survival,” says Truxall. “Because of their diet, manatees have a unique set of teeth called marching molars. Unlike other mammals, a manatee’s teeth are constantly being replaced as they move (march) from the back of the jaw to the front of the jaw and then fall out!”
Viewing the Manatee
The manatees make their way to warmer water when things get cold. In Volusia County, they seek shelter at Blue Springs State Park, located in Orange City, a designated Manatee Refuge, where during the colder months the spring and spring run are closed off to give them a safe place to seek shelter.
You can visit the park and, on any given winter day, you may see anywhere from a dozen up to 200 or more manatees crowded into the spring run. Sometimes you can spot them playing, sleeping or just lounging around. They are magnificent animals to see and appreciate, and so, if you go, be sure to take a camera and capture the moment.
While manatees have no natural enemies and can live up to 60 years, they may not be around for future
generations to view if we don’t do all we can to help protect them and their habitat. As John Lithgow, actor and author of the children’s book “I’m a Manatee” said, “I'm very concerned for the future of the earth and its amazing creatures. We've got to be careful and make sure we don't foul our own nest. But I also have a lot of faith in people.”
- They are vegetarian, eating 60 to 120 pounds of plants each day.
- Their closest relative is the elephant.
- They can reach up to 3,500 pounds. The average adult male is between 800 to 1200 pounds.
- Manatees are native to Florida, where their fossils date back to prehistoric times.
- The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee.
- Manatees are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
- A single manatee calf is born to a mother roughly every two to five years. Twin births are rare.
The female doesn’t mature until around five years of age.
- Despite not having external ear lobes, manatees can hear very well, using echolocation.
- Manatees communicate by using squeaks and squeals.
- Each year, many manatees are injured by boats. Polarized sunglasses can help increase a boater’s chances of seeing them before a collision occurs. In 2007 alone, 73 manatees were killed by boats in Florida.
- Manatees breathe air – every few minutes when playing, and every 10-15 minutes when at rest.
See the manatees at:
Blue Springs State Park
2100 W. French Avenue
If you go, arrive early, as it does get crowded. Be sure to take a camera and a jacket, because it is often chilly! You can view the manatees, enjoy a picnic, walk the nature trail, and visit the Thursby House, built in 1872.
Learn more at:
Lyonia Environmental Center
2150 Eustace Ave.
They have an interactive manatee display that teaches you about all about the manatee.
Volusia County Manatee Watch
Become a volunteer to help monitor local manatees.
Call Georgia Zern at (386) 736-5927 ext. 2939
Save the Manatee Club
Support outreach efforts in getting the word out about protecting manatees.
If you see a dead, injured, tagged, or orphaned manatee, or one being harassed, call 888-404-3922.
About the author:
Jacqueline Bodnar is a freelance writer that lives in Port Orange, Fla. with her husband and two children.