Manatees – also known as sea cows – are found in the tropical waters of West Africa, Central America and the Amazon. In Florida, Caribbean Manatees live in shallow coastal waters. However, these animals are also known to swim upstream for hundreds of miles.
Manatees are herbivores that graze on water plants such as seaweed. They mostly live alone – except during breeding season when multiple males fight over one female. The cows have a close relationship with their calves, feeding them up to 2 years.
Florida-Manatees can reach 13 feet in length and weigh up to 550 lbs. Their maximum life expectancy is 60 years. Like dolphins, manatees are very intelligent creatures that possess a remarkable long-term memory. The best time to observe Florida’s manatees are the winter months from November to April. Then, the animals are seeking shelter from the cold in shallow coastal waters.
Threats and Conservation
Manatees hardly have any natural predators. We humans, however, pose a real threat, as we are invading their habitat more and more. Peoples as far back as the Native Americans hunted manatees for their meat and fat. Manatee bones were regarded as medicine and ground into special tinctures. Fishermen also used to kill manatees, accusing the animals of stealing their catch. Manatee hunting was officially banned in 1893.
Today, motorboats are the most common threat. Manatees are slow swimmers that often get injured or even killed by boat propellers. What is more, wastewater in Florida’s rivers causes algae to spread, which leads to diseases of the central nervous system. The animals also get trapped in man made constructions like fishing nets and floodgates. Today manatees are listed as threatened species and protected by law in the US. In addition to the remaining 6.000 animals in the wild, manatees are often kept in zoos around the world.
The best Places to see Manatees
Guests in Florida have ample opportunities to observe the iconic Caribbean Manatees – not only in aquariums like Sea World. Especially during the winter months when the ocean gets colder, manatees retreat to the warm Florida coast. Here, they can be observed on land, from boats or underwater.
If boat trips are not for you, then you should visit Blue Spring State Park with its wooden boardwalks. Here you have a good chance of spotting the animals in the crystal-clear water. The Three Sisters Springs nature park is famous for attracting large gatherings of manatees. Groups of up to 100 animals have been observed here. At the TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach, you can watch the manatees from a 50 feet tower, while the visitor center sheds light on the behavior of these sea grazers. Guests in Cape Coral should book a boat tour at Sirenia Vista Park to see the animals up-close. But of course, you can also rent a kayak in Manatee Springs State Park. Paddling next to one of these aquatic giants is an unforgettable experience – especially for children.
If you want to swim with manatees, there is no better place than the Crystal River with its extended waterways and hot springs that attract the animals. Nowhere do you get so close to these gentle mammals than in the warm waters of Kings Bay. Multiple companies are offering trips, and the best time is early in the morning when the animals concentrate around the hot springs. First, your guide will take you to the river by boat and scan the water for ripples that indicate the presence of manatees. Then, you put on your snorkel and dive right in. Manatees are curious creatures that often swim close to humans – especially if they are not moving. Getting kissed by a manatee is definitely an unforgettable experience. And do not worry: Despite their huge size, manatees are completely harmless. They just have very poor eyesight and thus prefer examining unknown objects with their mouths.
Important Rules for Interacting with Manatees
Manatees are listed as threatened species. To protect them, safety zones have been created in Florida’s coastal waters. Boating and swimming is not allowed there. The same rules apply to reserves where guests observe manatees from boardwalks or on kayak rides. Swimming with manatees is only allowed in Kings Bay. Even there, however, visitors should never chase manatees or make hasty movements, as this could stress out the animals. Feeding manatees in the wild is also forbidden. Willfully injuring or harassing a manatee is illegal and can result in a hefty fine or even imprisonment.
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