During a routine third grade school library visit circa 1993, I fell in love. I wasn’t really into boys yet (unless they were on TV and looked like Rider Strong — swoon!), but when I randomly flipped the page in a nature magazine, I laid eyes on the most glorious creature I’d ever seen: the sea cow. Formally known as the manatee, the beautiful, bulky, gray, wrinkled swimmer stared at me with generously spaced beady eyes and what I swear was a smile. I knew I’d found my animal soulmate. I promptly showed the page — an advertisement for the Save the Manatee Club — to my teacher and soon, my entire class was grudgingly donating money to sponsor a sea cow in Florida. Honestly, to this day, it’s my proudest achievement.
Fast-forward a few decades and I’m still just as obsessed with the gentle, flippered giants and am currently the proud sponsor of a lovely little manatee lady named Electra, who was rescued by the Save the Manatee Club after a boat strike in 1998. I have been gifted with no less than three Mana-Tea infusers over the years, I’ve prominently pasted a sea cow sticker on my laptop, and I am frequently tagged in social media posts related to the aquatic loves of my life. So when I was asked to write a comprehensive article on these super chill marine mammals, I screamed a bit and then got to work. Here is everything you’d ever want to know about manatees, brought to you by a lifelong fan.
What Is a Manatee, Anyway?
There are a lot of ways you could describe a manatee, but Smithsonian.com does a pretty succinct and eloquent job, calling the animals “roly-poly herbivores.” There are three species of these slow, sizable swimmers: the Amazonian, West African and West Indian manatees (the last one is divided into two separate subspecies: Florida manatee and Caribbean manatee). All belong to the animal order Sirenia that also includes the dugong and an extinct species called the Steller’s sea cow.
Manatees are marine animals that live in shallow, calm waters including rivers, estuaries, canals, coastal areas and saltwater bays, and as you probably could have guessed, many of them are big fans of Florida (though they travel as far north as Virginia and the Carolinas). The West Indian manatee lives along the North American east coast from Florida to Brazil; the Amazonian manatee hangs along the Amazon River; and the African manatee swims along the west coast and rivers of Africa. All they really need in their watery habitat is lots of seagrass or freshwater vegetation since these sweet, migratory swimmers adhere to a strictly plant-based diet.
Which is a problem if that plant-based diet becomes scarce. As reported by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the high level of manatee deaths have “met the criteria to be declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) by the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events.” There were 841 manatee deaths recorded between Jan. 1 and July 2, 2021, the highest number of manatee deaths of any year in recorded history. The cause? Environmentalists believe water pollution is killing the seagrass beds in the Indian River and the waters of surrounding counties.
“Unprecedented manatee mortality due to starvation was documented on the Atlantic coast this past winter and spring,” Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wrote as it announced the record. “Most deaths occurred during the colder months when manatees migrated to and through the Indian River Lagoon, where the majority of seagrass has died off.”
How Long Have Manatees Been in Florida?
“Fossil remains of manatee ancestors show they have inhabited Florida for about 45 million years,” says Cheyenne Canon, conservation associate at Save the Manatee Club, in an email. “Modern manatees have been in Florida for over 1 million years (probably with intermittent absences during the Ice Ages). The present Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is a subspecies endemic (or “native”) to Florida. Genetic studies indicate that it is not derived from the populations in Mexico or Central America but more likely colonized Florida from the Greater Antilles thousands of years ago, after the last ice age.”
Manatees may not exactly fit the physical description of what most people would consider cute and cuddly, but to their true fans, they out-cute any stereotypically snuggly pet. They have long, round bodies that come to a taper at their flat, paddle-shaped tail. Their two flippers each have three to four nails, and their signature snout is whiskered. Their tough skin is wrinkled, and their size is no joke: They’re about 4 to 4.5 feet (1.2 to 1.4 meters) long at birth and average 60-70 pounds (27 to 32 kilograms). When they’re fully grown, manatees weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds (360-545 kilograms) and reach 10 feet (3 meters) in length. The largest of the species can grow to be up to 3,500 pounds (1,590 kilograms) and 13 feet (4 meters) in length. And yet, they’ve got that sweet face and kind disposition to keep up their approachable image.
What Are Manatees Like?
“Manatees are incredibly calm and curious animals,” Canon says. “In fact, they can be so curious that they find themselves in dangerous situations, such as approaching a boat. In the wild, manatees are typically independent, but they are not territorial and can be found in large groups in warm water springs. Manatees are not aggressive at all and have no natural predators. They interact peacefully with alligators.”
To borrow from another one of my favorite descriptions of the animal found on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website, “most of their time is spent eating, resting and traveling.” I mean honestly, same. Maybe the most relatable mammals on the planet? The eating part is pretty important — an adult manatee can eat a tenth of its own weight in 24 hours.
Why Are Manatees Endangered?
While manatees have no natural enemies (awww) and can live for up to 60 years or more, their lives are often cut short due to human-related causes. The No. 1 culprit: watercraft.
“Manatees spend the majority of their time in shallow water,” Canon says. “Especially in Florida, boats are common in these same shallow waters. Boats present two threats to manatees: the boat propeller, which can cut a manatee multiple times causing devastating damage; and the boat hull, which can cause severe blunt force trauma if the boat impacts the manatee at a high speed.”
If you own a boat and you’re headed out in known manatee territory, make sure to stay in deep water when possible and practice common sense and take proper precautions — you can even download a free brochure on the topic from the Save the Manatee Club (but warning, the cover image of a brokenhearted manatee and the words “if you love me, please don’t touch or feed me” might break your heart).
“The best thing that boaters can do to help protect manatees is to boat carefully in areas where manatees are common,” Canon says. “Boaters should also obey all posted speed signs. Manatee zones are researched extensively for their importance to manatees and the likelihood that manatees will be present — manatee zones are not decided willy-nilly. Boaters can also keep an eye out for manatees that may need help, such as lone calves, manatees with fresh wounds, or manatees that may be cold-stressed, and report them to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).”
While manatees have been known to be at risk for decades (hence the creation of the Save the Manatee Club in 1981 by singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham), many advocates feel we’re not doing enough to keep them safe. “Manatees are currently listed as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act,” Canon says. “They were downgraded from an ‘endangered’ status in 2017 due to their rebounding population numbers. Save the Manatee Club did not agree with the downlisting as many of the threats that resulted in their endangered status have either not improved, or worsened. For example, based on population counts and death statistics from FWC, 8 percent of the Florida manatee population died in 2017. In 2018, when there was a statewide case of red tide the manatee lost 13 percent of its population.”
“West Indian manatees in the United States are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal,” Canon continues. “West Indian manatees are also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. Violations of these federal or state laws can be met with civil or criminal convictions associated with monetary fines and/or imprisonment.”
How Can You Help Support the Manatees?
If all of this has made you extremely jealous of my status as a certificate-carrying manatee adopter, you too can get in on the glory and sponsor a sea cow through the Save the Manatee club. And if you’d rather show support in a different way, there are plenty of options.
“There are many ways to help or support manatees,” Canon says. “Just some of the possibilities are: adopting a manatee, donating to one of Save the Manatee Club’s project funds, holding your own fundraisers to raise money and inform people, assisting with education and advocacy efforts, and volunteering.” For a more comprehensive list of ways to support these gentle giants of the sea, visit savethemanatee.org/how-to-help.
“New research with manatees Hugh and Buffett has indicated that manatees have very sensitive body hairs which are able to detect subtle changes in water movement around them,” Canon says. “Scientists had previously wondered how manatees might navigate, as their eyesight isn’t very good.”