Not quite mermaids, but manatees are treasured – and still protected

Itâ™s tempting, but illegal, to give manatees fresh water from the hose, even though they love it so.
Itâ™s tempting, but illegal, to give manatees fresh water from the hose, even though they love it so.

The dive boat pulled up to the dock.

A face appeared in the water, displayed its pink tongue, and then sang in a haunting beautiful voice:

“Come away with me and we'll kiss - Come away with me and I'll never stop loving you - So all I ask is for you is to come away with me.” (Written and performed by Norah Jones for her 2002 studio album “Come away with me.”)

The vision faded. I actually was looking at a manatee, a member of an animal order (group) called "Sirenia." The word "siren" comes from an old story about beautiful girls that lived in the sea during the time of Hercules called "sirens."

Legend has it that some lonely sailors thought these manatees were mermaids. I had been at sea for only a half-day of scuba diving.

Who knows? Maybe I was reliving a past life. Or, it may have been related to an excess amount of nitrogen or even spicy food. But, the manatee sure had a pretty face with a pink tongue that screamed out to be French kissed.

Christopher Columbus mentioned in his log that the "mermaids" he had seen during his voyages to the New World were not quite as beautiful as the sailors had told him.

The dive boat captain, apparently as wise as old Christopher, was not fooled. He, unlike the ancient Greek sailors that were put into a trance and crashed their ships into the rocks when hearing the songs of the sirens, did not crash into the dock. Perhaps the captain knew that manatees didn’t sing but actually communicate by squealing under water to demonstrate fear, stress or excitement.

The scientific name of the manatee, a large aquatic relative of the elephant, is Trichechus manatus (Kingdom - Animalia, Phylum - Chordata, Class - Mammalia, Infraclass - Eutheria, Order - Sirenia, Family - Trichechidae, and Genus – Trichechus). All the extra names are referred to as taxonomy, which is used in biology to classify organisms, and to organize them according to their similarities.

The four living species of the order Sirenia are the Amazonian manatee, West Indian manatee and African manatee and their smaller relative the dugong that lives in Australia.

Manatees, the only plant-eating marine mammals in modern times, spend up to eight hours a day using their muscular lips to consume up to 10 percent of their body weight in aquatic vegetation. This chewing takes its toll. A manatee's teeth (all molars) are constantly being replaced.

The West Indian manatee ranges from the southern United States throughout the Caribbean Islands, Central America, and to northern South America.

Our new friend, the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris), lives in many Florida waterways, up the eastern coastline into Georgia, the Carolinas, west to Texas and as far north as Massachusetts during warm months.

Florida ’s manatee population is estimated at approximately 6,000 individuals. Since the ‘70s Crystal River and Kings Bay area have been the most popular area in Florida where people swim with and are monitored around manatees.

Adult manatees typically are 9-10 feet long and weigh around 1,000 pounds, but they may grow to over 13 feet and weigh more than 3500 pounds. They are gray in color but algae growing on their skin may make them appear green or brown. 

Manatees have fine hairs on their bodies and stiff whiskers on their face and lips. Despite their small eyes and lack of outer ears, manatees are thought to see and hear quite well.

Their two fore limbs are used for slow movements and to grasp vegetation while eating. The big rounded, flattened tail is for swimming. They are very agile and can swim upside down, roll, do somersaults or move vertically in the water.

A manatee's lungs are 2/3 the length of its body enabling it to only surface approximately every five minutes to breathe through its nostrils (their mouths are used for eating). It can hold its breath for as long as twenty minutes when resting.

Female manatees reach sexual maturity in 3-5 years and males in and 5-7 years. Manatees are estimated to live 60 years in protected environments.

Gestation is approximately 13 months. Usually one calf is born weighing between 60 and 70 pounds and measuring about 3-4 feet long. Baby manatees nurse underwater.

Females are single moms raising their calves until they are about 2 years. Only about half of juvenile manatees that reach adulthood survive into their early 20s.

During the winter months, manatees head for warm waters, such as springs, energy center discharge canals and down to the Keys where many can be seen in the canals and shallow water.  The manatee is protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal.

(As I wrote this column the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal to change the manatee’s protection status from endangered to threatened. The change would not, the Service said, affect federal protections for the manatee.)

The manatee is also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which states: "It is unlawful for any person, at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb any manatee."

Harassment is defined as any activity which alters the animal's natural behavior.

Anyone convicted of violating this state law faces a possible maximum fine of $500 and/or imprisonment for up to 60 days. Conviction on the federal level is punishable by fine of up to $50,000 and/or one year in prison.

The State of Florida can pursue prosecution under federal law in circumstances of extreme harassment, resulting in the death or injury of a manatee.

There are some important rules to follow when you are in areas populated by manatees (the state's official mammal), which has been proclaimed by Governor Rick Scott as a "distinctive, valuable, and beloved natural resource." (See Manatee Manners:  http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Crystal_River/Multimedia/Manatee_Manners_Videos.html )

Do not pursue or chase a manatee if you see one while you are swimming, snorkeling, diving or operating a boat. If one happens to be near you, look, but don't touch, poke, prod or attempt to ride it. 

Don't feed manatees or give them fresh water. Sometimes it is difficult to avoid accidently giving manatee fresh water. Manatees love fresh water and show up when folks are rinsing off their boats.

Many of the manatees spotted in the Keys have big scars from boat propeller cuts. It is very important to heed warnings about going slow in posted manatee areas and to avoid manatee refuge areas.

For more about Manatees see: http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/mammals/aquatic/manatee/


For Florida laws and regulations relating to manatees and viewing guidelines see: http://myfwc.com/education/wildlife/manatee/viewing-guidelines/