West Indian (Florida) Manatee
I remember the first time we saw a manatee, when we visited SeaWorld many years ago and we all fell in love with them instantly. The manatee is extremely gentle with a large rotund body, a small whiskery nose, a large paddle-shaped tail and two small flippers.
After seeing the 'Last Generation' exhibit we went on one of the behind the scenes tours and saw what can happen to them. It was sad to hear of their plight and to realise that they were in danger from mankind's own actions.
It is thought that there are only around 3,300 West Indian (Florida) manatees left in the existence.
Groups of Manatees at Homosassa Springs State Park
Many manatees die as a direct result of humans; either through collisions with watercraft, being crushed or trapped in flood control or canal gates, ingesting rubbish like fish hooks and monofilament line or as a result of our destruction of their natural habitat. In 2006, over 400 manatees were found dead, the highest number ever recorded.
When we heard of the Save The Manatee organisation, we realised we could do something to help and we bought our daughter a membership as one of her birthday presents and have continued each year. Why not think about joining their Adopt a Manatee program as part of a loved ones holiday gift.
A few years ago we got to see 'our' manatee Rosie when we visited Homosassa Springs for the first time and were thrilled to finally meet her.
The manatee's closest relative is actually the elephant and like the elephant it consumes huge amounts of vegetation, in the manatee's case, aquatic plants. A manatee typically eats between 10 and 15% of their body weight each day.
An average adult is around 10 feet (3 metres) long, weight around 800 to 1200 pounds (350-550 kgs) and can stay submerged for 3 to 5 minutes on average.
Manatees can be found all around the coastlines of Florida and in shallow slow moving rivers and river estuaries. They can cope with fresh, brackish and salt water and prefer water between 3-7 ft (1-2m) deep which makes them very vulnerable to watercraft. Off the coast they will go in water up to 10-16 feet (3-5m) deep.
They need warm water so in winter they tend to head for warm rivers and also outlets from Power stations. Some the best places to see manatees in the wild, particularly in the winter, is at Homosassa Springs and Crystal River (where you can swim with them) on the west coast or the Blue Spring State Park on the east coast. They can also be seen in captivity at Disney's Epcot Living Seas Pavilion or at SeaWorld in Orlando.
At one time there were five species of manatee, namely the West Indian or Florida manatee, the West African manatee, the Amazonian manatee, the dugong from the Indo-Pacific region and the giant 30ft Steller's sea cow from the Bering Sea. Alas the Steller's sea cow was hunted to extinction in 1768.
Today, the West Indian manatees in the United States are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which make it illegal to annoy, harass, disturb, hunt, capture, or kill them.
Despite widespread protest, in June 2006, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lowered manatees protected status from 'endangered' to 'threatened'. Federally they are still listed as 'endangered', however there are rumours that this might be downgraded to 'threatened' as well despite the current high mortality rate.