Some call them ‘sea cows.’ They belong to the family of marine mammals called ‘Sirenia’, after the ‘Sirens’ of Greek mythology: mermaid-style creatures whose irresistible beauty lured sailors to their deaths.
Blubbery and be-whiskered, 10-feet long and weighing a thousand pounds, it’s hard to imagine anyone today mistaking a manatee for a seductive woman who just happens to be a fish from the waist down - even considering that definitions of beauty have changed over the centuries.
Manatees’ closest cousins are elephant seals, except their large gray bodies taper to a paddle-shaped tail instead of hind legs. Manatees have two flippers for forelimbs, and a large, rounded head with a wrinkly, whiskery snout, and peaceful face. Maybe that gentle, passive face is what earns it the ‘sea cow’ moniker, along with its slow movements as it meanders through shallow coastal waters in search of its seagrass diet.
Although they sound exotic, and manatees are found along western Africa and the Amazon, they’re also found close to home in the Caribbean and the south-eastern United States.
In fact, they’re famously a mascot of Florida’s coastal ecosystem, where they spend the winters, migrating mostly up to Georgia and South Carolina in the summer months.
As mammals, they breathe air, surfacing every three to five minutes. That makes them vulnerable to injury by watercraft passing overhead as the manatees emerge to breathe. Mishaps with fish hooks and lines, ingesting litter, water pollution and loss of habitat add to the dire threats facing Florida’s manatee population of less than 6000.
The dozen Florida counties, including Brevard, Broward, Citrus, Collier, Dade, Duval, Indian River, Lee, Martin, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Sarasota, and Volusia that are home to manatees collaborate with state authorities to help keep these ‘gentle giants’ safe and protect their homes and feeding grounds.
Safe Manatee Spotting
Throughout Florida, visitors can get a chance to see these quizzical and charming aquatic creatures in their natural habitats. Visitors can get up close and personal with manatees and understand why Floridians are working hard to preserve this threatened species and restore their habitats.
Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River is a vital winter habitat for manatees. Visitors can enjoy watching these gentle creatures from the area’s boardwalk, or hop on a clear kayak to see them as you navigate through clear waters. For a closer look, embark on a guided sightseeing tour below the surface and snorkel beside manatees. The focus is on passively observing manatees to ensure their safety.
At Homosassa Springs, manatees are just one of the countless creatures that call this wildlife state park their home. At the natural spring bowl, you may spot the manatees in their natural habitat. You can also stand up and paddle along the surface for a new way to sightsee.
In the cooler months, head north of Crystal River to Manatee Springs State Park, where its namesake animal can be seen while you walk along the sprawling 800-foot boardwalk. The magnificent spring alone is worth the visit, with sightings of the manatees that populate its waters a double win for visitors.
At the Manatee Lagoon in West Palm Beach, an eco-discovery centre is dedicated to educating the community as well as inspiring others to help preserve and protect these fascinating creatures. In addition to exhibits for visitors of all ages, the whole family will enjoy gorgeous waterfront views.
Protecting and Preserving Florida’s Manatees
Amidst a terrible year for manatee deaths, the state of Florida allocated US$8 million of funding to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to help the state’s beloved threatened manatee population.
Visitors to Florida can help by practicing safe boating, and contributing to recognized projects and experiences that fund manatee protection.
Crystal River’s highly successful multi-year Kings Bay Restoration Project is expanding in 2021, and may soon become the standard for restoring troubled coastal waters that manatees rely on elsewhere in Florida. Currently, 92 acres of the 600-acre Kings Bay are under restoration as part of a US$40 million, seven-year project that replants native seagrass and removes toxic algae.
Another local advocacy group - The Homosassa River Restoration Project - has also secured State funding to begin similar work on the nearby Homosassa River.
As a threatened species, sea cows face an uncertain future, but through funding and initiatives supported by residents and visitors, Florida can continue to work hard to ensure that visitors will continue to see these magnificent beasts and swim beside them for years to come.
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Images courtesy of Visit Florida.
By: Lynn Elmhirst, producer/host, BestTrip TV
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