Manatees: The original “sirens of the sea.” Manatees actually belong to the order Sirenia; which originates from the word “siren.” Sirens are the legendary Greek sea beauties that lured sailors into the sea. It is thought that the oldtime mermaid sightings were actually sirenians rather than the mythical half woman, half fish creature.
Crystal River is a quaint town in Florida where you can snorkel with the manatees as they make their way up into warmer waters to to wait out the cooler winter weather. Although in the past, the best months to view manatees up close in their environment was November through April, in recent years, manatees can be found in Crystal River year round. Manatees have a low metabolic rate and usually don’t live in water that is less than 68 degrees Fahrenheit. During the winter months, as many as 500 manatees can be found in the Crystal River area.
After arriving in Tampa, Florida and droving the 1.5 hours to Crystal River, we were tired but excited for the next day’s early encounter with the manatees. It was still dark out the next morning as we met at the manatee excursion area where we were fitted for our wetsuits and introduced ourselves to the fellow manatee supporters. Our small group of about 12 boarded the boat which would take us upstream and anchor outside the protected manatee area of the river. Water depths in the designated manatee area were 3-20 feet, with the start of the manatee protection area cordoned off to prevent any boats from traveling to where the manatees were.
Manatees are gentle, slow moving, graceful swimmers, and spend most of their time eating, resting, and traveling (sounds like an ideal goal!). Their diet consists of aquatic plants and they eat 10-15% of their body weight daily. An average adult manatee is 10 feet long with a weight between 800-1200 pounds. Many of these gentle giants were accustomed to people and loved having their backs scratched; especially this one who reminded me of a Shar Pei because of all his wrinkles. Unfortunately, my photos aren’t crystal clear as the manatees and snorkelers tended to stir up a lot of sand and sediment from the bottom of the river. But the overall experience was excellent!
Manatees are endangered with only about 2500 remaining in the USA with the vast majority of threats to their existence coming from people. Many manatees die after being crushed or drowned in canal locks and flood control structures; after ingestion of fishing lines, hooks, and litter; entanglement in crab trap lines; and as a result of vandalism. Most human related manatee mortalities occur from collisions with watercraft. Many of the manatees we saw had deep scarring on their backs and bodies after being injured by boat propellers. Seeing the scars on these peaceful creatures made me extremely sad and very angry.
Manatees originated in the middle Eocene period about 40-50 million years ago. Manatees are thought to have evolved from a wading plant eating animal with the closest relative being the elephant, the hydrax, and the aardvark. The jointed bones of a manatee’s flippers have 3-4 nails each and serve a function similar to a human hand. Their flippers are used for steering, to hold objects, and to bring food to their mouths.
Manatees have “marching molars”, their only kind of teeth. Throughout a manatee’s life, the molars are constantly replaced to adapt to their diet of abrasive vegetation. Manatees use their muscular lips to tear plants and guide food to their lips; very much like how an elephant uses it’s trunk. Manatees have an oversized, double-nostriled snout, and a large and flexible upper lip with whiskers (vibrissae) on the surface. Each vibrissa has its own separate follicular blood supply and nerve endings.
Unlike most mammals, manatees have six rather than seven cervical vertebrae, so they cannot turn their heads; they must turn their whole bodies to look around.
The eyes of a manatee are small, but their eyesight is good. They have a nictitating membrane, a transparent third eyelid, which can be drawn across their eyeball for protection. Manatees have large ear bones which accounts for their exceptional hearing. Although the brain of a manatee is about the size of an orange and not very convoluted, there is an unusually high ratio of grey to white matter and functions the same way as a brain of highly intelligent animals.
We loved our short time snorkeling with the manatees. Hopefully through increased education and awareness and by supporting such organizations such as savethemanatees.org, the manatees will have a chance to survive the very real threat of extinction. I would go back to Crystal River in a heartbeat and since this trip I have been a member of Save the Manatees organization since 2013. Save Our Manatees!!