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The manatee slowly raises its head to my mask. It looks like a tuskless walrus—flabby jowls, bristly whiskers, a thick leathery skin—an ugly face at first glance. I find it hard to believe that these are the mermaids of legend. Hardly the face and body of a sexy seductress!
It was an unusually chilly week in January. With the air temperature struggling to break 30°F, I braved an already wet wetsuit for a 7:00 am dip at one of the most popular sites called Three Sisters. My reward—nearly 20 manatees crowded together, sharing their warmth on a bright sand patch. Among the group gathered there was a female called “Elvis,” so named by locals because of a large scar on her back resembling an “E.”
For the next two hours, Elvis never wandered far from my side. When I rubbed her smooth underside, and especially the hollow at the base of her flipper (a Manatee “erogenous zone”), Elvis was obviously in complete bliss. She honestly seemed to enjoy the contact and attention as much as I did.
Several years ago this spot was designated a manatee sanctuary. Part of the area is roped off, creating a “manatees-only zone.” Snorkelers can interact with animals outside of the boundaries, but are not permitted to swim into the enclosure. This gives the animals a much needed breather from the crowds of eager human visitors.
Another manatee spot is Blue Springs, on the Upper Homosassa River. As soon as we arrived, a young manatee with exceptionally warty skin came right up to our pontoon boat, and turned out to be patiently waiting for me as I hurriedly geared up. When we dropped anchor, it began chewing up and down the length of the anchor line. I imagine the rope was serving as a sort of dental floss. It was totally fixated with the anchor line and took no notice of me as I slid into the water and settled beside the boat to watch its antics. Like so many of its brethren, this manatee had numerous scars carved in its thick hide by a boat’s propeller. (Thankfully, many of these wounds usually are not serious enough to result in death. It is the force of impact with boat hulls at high speed, however, that is often times fatal.) These scars are grim proof that the manatees have not yet learned to fear boats. They should also be a reminder that boaters need to exercise much more caution when traversing manatee waters.
Florida’s Crystal River area is one of the only places in the world where humans have the opportunity to come face to face with these beloved “sea cows.” The majority of the estimated 3,000 surviving manatees can be found concentrated in central Florida during the winter months.
Cooling ocean temperatures force the manatees to move inshore and up into the warmer spring-fed
riverways that remain a constant 72 to 74°F. Manatees don’t have an insulating layer of blubber to protect them from the cold like many marine mammals do. Prolonged exposure to 60°F ocean water can actually lead to hypothermia and death.
Manatees spend much of their time sleeping and soaking up the warmth. They also devote hours each day to feeding, and eating from 100 to 300 pounds of sea grasses per day. The average normal adult manatee is eight to 10 feet long and weigh about 1,000 pounds.
The plight of the Florida manatee has finally captured the public’s full attention, and awareness of the existing problems is at an all time high. There are numerous conservation groups tirelessly campaigning to save the manatees. Manatees in aquariums, parks and rehabilitation centers draw huge crowds. Both are helping to further educate the public. Laws protecting the manatee are already in effect, and further safeguards are currently being implemented. Certainly, the boat operators motoring along the coast and in the inland waterways will need to be more careful. And, waterfront development will have to be curbed to stop the destruction of the few remaining areas serving as manatee feeding and breeding grounds. In addition, those feeding areas near winter refuge sites that have already been destroyed will have to be restored—a formidable and expensive task to be sure.
Man and manatee can coexist side by side in harmony, but we must be willing
to work for it.
The most popular places to swim with manatees are the Crystal and Homosassa rivers in west central Florida. Prime viewing months are December through the end of February. If at all possible, try to time your trip for a cold period. Weekends are likely to be very busy, with boatloads of snorkelers on each group of manatees. For more personal encounters, schedule your snorkeling tours during the week. Be prepared to start the day early, as you will most likely have the best luck in the mornings before the manatees have dispersed for their afternoon feeding.
The dugong, Dugong dugon, has only subtle morphological differences from the manatee—no toenails on the flippers, and tailflukes more like a whale or dolphin rather than a giant paddle. It is also slightly smaller than the manatee, with adults typically six to nine feet long and weighing 600 to 900 pounds. Habitat and diet are very similar to its cousin, as is reproduction.
Dugongs are found from Eastern Africa to the Solomon Islands, but numbers are small throughout most of its range. (Curiously enough, fossil records hint that the dugong was once widespread in the Americas, especially during the Pleistocene epoch. It appears the dugong was eventually displaced by the manatee.) The largest concentration (a few hundred?) is found around the Cape York Peninsula in northeastern Australia. Although the dugong enjoys protection in most places, it too is in danger of extinction. Some traditional hunting by Aborigines is still allowed, while many also drown each year in gill nets used by commercial fishermen working near shore. The author isn’t aware of an Indo-Pacific equivalent to Crystal River, Florida, where people can so easily and reliably encounter dugongs, though sightings in Vanuatu, the Philippines, and Shark Bay, Australia, seem to occur regularly enough to offer the best chance.
Snorkeling is usually the best way to get close to the manatees. Scuba bubbles are more likely to scare the animals away; besides, scuba is totally unnecessary with the very shallow depths. Most people choose to wear a wetsuit to help ward off the morning chill. A few things to remember when swimming with the manatees: Be constantly on the lookout if you are piloting your own boat and obey all regulations; don’t chase the animals—let the curious ones approach you; move slowly and avoid stirring up the bottom sediment; at all times, be gentle with the animals and treat them with respect—friendly ones will return the favor and provide you with an unforgettable experience.