November is Manatee Awareness Month, as designated by former Florida Governor Bob Graham in 1979 because November is typically the month when manatees return to Florida’s warm waters.
Manatees search for warmer waters because lower temperatures can cause cold stress. In the past, they sought out natural springs as warm water refuges, but man has blocked, canaled, or drained many of them. Today, many manatees tend to gather at power plants in the warm water the plants emit.
One of the best places to see manatees is at the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center at the Big Bend Power Station, 6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach. They also often can be seen in Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park.
Photo by Brian Call
1. First, the Sad News: They’re Dying at Record Numbers
In 2021, Florida broke mortality records with 1,100 manatees dying, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). 800 died in 2022, and 476 have died so far this year.
The FWC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) continue to investigate a high level of manatee mortalities and continue to respond to manatee rescues along the coasts of Florida. Responding to manatees in need of rescue is a top priority for wildlife agencies and partners from the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership. FWC manatee biologists are working hard to respond to reports of distressed manatees and rescue manatees that need assistance.
Reasons for manatee mortalities include watercraft collisions, entanglement, cold stress, impacts from red tide, starvation, or entrapment. There are many ways you can help protect manatees:
Look, but don't touch manatees.
Keep your distance when boating and follow the rules in no-wake manatee zones.
Wear polarized sunglasses to keep a lookout for manatees.
Dispose of fishing lines/nets properly.
Report sick or injured manatees to FWC.
2. The Giant Sea Cows Are Starving to Death
Although manatees have very few natural predators, one of the leading causes of death is likely from seagrass die-off.
Manatees are aquatic herbivores and eat seagrasses, weeds, and other aquatic vegetation. Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute says that many manatee deaths happened when the animals migrated into the Indian River Lagoon, where most of the seagrass has been presumably killed off by nutrient pollution.
3. Manatees Are Big – and Big Eaters
Typical adult manatees grow to be 9-10 feet long and weigh around 1,000 pounds, but some grow to more than 13 feet long and weigh more than 3,500 pounds. They’re big eaters, too, spending as much as 8 hours a day searching for food. Adult manatees usually consume between 4 to 9 percent of their body weight in aquatic vegetation daily, but they have been known to eat as much as 10 percent of their weight in just 24 hours.
4. Manatees are related to … wait for it … Elephants!
A distant relative of the manatee are elephants, and like its elephant relatives, the manatee uses its muscular upper lips like a trunk to pick up food.
5. Manatees Cannot Move Their Heads Sideways
Because manatees only have six cervical (or neck) vertebrae, they cannot turn their heads sideways. They must turn their whole body around to look behind them. Nevertheless, they are quite agile in the water, able to swim upside down, roll, do somersaults, or move vertically in the water.
Photo by Brian Call
6. There Are Actually Three Species of Manatee
There are three species of manatee, distinguished primarily by where they live. The species we are most familiar with is the West Indian manatee, which ranges from the southern U.S. throughout the Caribbean Islands, Central America, and as far south as Brazil. The Amazonian manatee inhabits the Amazon River, and the African manatee swims along the west coast and rivers of Africa.
The Florida manatee is actually a sub-species of the West Indian manatee. It inhabits Florida’s coastal waters, rivers and springs, with some known to travel up the eastern seaboard into Georgia, the Carolinas, and even as far north as Massachusetts during warm weather months. In the Gulf, manatees can be found in coastal Louisiana, and have been sighted as far west as Texas.
7. Manatees May Live Over 65 Years in Captivity
Manatees may live over 65 years in captivity, but of those wild manatees that reach adulthood (around 3 to 7 years after birth), only half survive to their early 20s.
8. These Slow-Pokes Can Reach Speeds of 15 Miles Per Hour – Almost Twice As Fast As Olympic Swimmers
While these gentle sea cows usually lumber along at less than 5 miles per hour, they are surprisingly strong swimmers, capable of reaching speeds as fast as 15 miles per hour in short bursts. (By contrast, Olympic swimmers typically average just 8 mph.)
Photo by Brian Call
9. Manatees Are Intelligent
It is believed manatees have long-term memory since they migrate hundreds of miles to the same warm water refuges every year. Those in captivity have been trained to react to visual stimuli and commands.
10. Manatees Are Protected by Law
Look at them, but never touch manatees. Keep your distance when boating (they are easier to spot with polarized sunglasses) even if you are steering a kayak, canoe or paddleboard.
West Indian manatees are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which makes it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill them. They are also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. Violations can be met with civil and/or criminal penalties, monetary fines of up to $100,000, and/or imprisonment for up to one year.
National parks, particularly in Florida, help ensure the continued protection of manatees by providing safe havens subject to environmental regulations that protect wildlife and water quality and enforcing laws that restrict boating activity to minimize watercraft-related manatee fatalities. Everglades National Park, for example, tags and monitors manatees, which enables park biologists to track the park’s manatee population and to identify and address warning signs of stress before the park’s manatee population can experience significant decline.
The Everglades Foundation’s mission is to restore and protect America’s Everglades. The primary objective of Everglades restoration is to store, clean, and send water south from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades and Florida Bay, as nature intended. Restoration success will significantly reduce coastal discharges from Lake Okeechobee that lead to seagrass die-off, and benefit manatees who depend on seagrass for food.
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