Manatees: Graceful Gentle Giants

Manatees have always captured the fascination of Jean-Michel Cousteau and his expedition team. Listed as critically endangered around the world, manatees need our support and protection. In honor of Manatee Awareness Month, learn more about these graceful gentle giants and how you can help ensure their long-term protection.

Jean-Michel’s father, Jacques Cousteau, called them the “forgotten mermaids” when his team aboard Calypso first began filming manatees in the late 1980s. Jean-Michel knew the images and stories of the magical world of manatees would inspire the general public to care about the manatees’ plight, and maybe even support efforts to protect them from human threats.

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Also known as ‘sea cows’, manatees are graceful swimmers despite their large size. They are found in warm shallow coastal waters and river. Using their strong fan-shaped tails to swim, manatees usually travel around 5 miles per hour, but can reach up to 15 miles per hour in very small bursts.

All manatees are born underwater and their mothers help them get to the surface to take their first breaths. Infants can usually swim only an hour after being born. Manatees grow between 8 to 13 feet long and have an average life span of 40 years in their natural environment. Although they are generally solitary, manatees can also be found in pairs or in very small groups of six or less. They never leave the water, but like any marine mammal, manatees must breathe air at the surface to survive. Normally, manatees will surface every 3 to 4 minutes, but can stay under water for 15 minutes at a time.

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There are three living species of manatees, and they are distinguished by where they live. The West Indian manatee species lives along the east coast of the U.S., the Amazonian species thrives in the Amazon River and its many tributaries, and the West African species can be found along the west coast and rivers of Africa. Unfortunately a close cousin to the manatees, the Steller sea cow, was driven to extinction in 1768. Only 27 years after it was first described by naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, the Steller Sea Cow was over-hunted by Europeans and now, this species no longer exists. This is a harsh reminder of how vulnerable the living populations of manatees are today.

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These unique marine mammals are major herbivores, eating different types of freshwater and saltwater plants and algae. A manatee can eat a tenth of its own weight in just one day and may weigh anywhere from 400 to over 1,300 pounds as an adult. Because of their grazing habits and slow moving lifestyle, manatees are vulnerable to boat strikes and harassment by humans. They are generally found in shallow waters, which are habitats often altered or destroyed for human development. These are just some of the threats facing these endangered animals.

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In recent years, manatees have attracted attention from many people hoping to see these gentle giants up-close. In Crystal River, Florida, US Fish and Wildlife Service, along with local authorities constructed viewing platforms that allow visitors to observe these animals in shallow waters, where the manatees seek warm springs to escape the dropping ocean temperatures in the winter. These types of places are critical to conservation, enabling visitors to see these magical animals without directly disturbing them in their natural environments.

Ocean Futures Society expedition diver, marine biologist, Holly Lohuis took her son to Crystal River, FL, and enjoyed viewing these docile animals in a protected area where visitation is limited. As human disturbance is one of the major threats to these animals, it is important that places like these support conservation efforts to teach and inspire people about manatees, while at the same time respecting their natural space. You can help manatees by making sure that if you choose to visit them, you do so in a respectful manner that does not disturb them in their natural environment.

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Although humans have been one of the greatest dangers to manatees, we can also be a powerful force for good. For those living in regions homes to manatees, please remember to always take boating safety classes and drive slowly in areas known to harbor manatees. By teaching one another about these curious, gentle giants, we can spread the word about how we can all help protect them.

Today, we know more about the natural world than we did in the past. We know that keeping biodiversity strong is important to not only the plants and animals of this planet, but also us. Manatees may look like sleepy old mermaids, but in reality, they are important links in the connections between energy and nutrients, and just like us, and all other species on Earth, they deserve to flourish in their natural homes.

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Fun fact! The closest living relative to the manatees is the elephant! Both manatees and elephants shared a common ancestor in the past, and while one veered towards a life on the land, the other dipped below the surface of the sea. If you look closely, you can see many resemblances between manatees and elephants, including their thick outer skin, similarly in number of toenails, and large muscular lips that serve the same function of breaking up vegetation to eat. They even share the same kind of spherical heart, which differs from other marine mammals that have the more commonly known single-pointed tip, or “heart-shaped” heart.