The Manatee

 

The West Indian manatees, who winter in this area of Florida, are large, gray-brown aquatic mammals with bodies that taper to a flat, paddle-shaped tail. They have two flippers with three to four nails on each, and their head and face are wrinkled with whiskers on the snout. The manatee's closest relative is the elephant.  The average adult manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs about 1,000 pounds.

 Manatees are found in shallow, slow-moving rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals and coastal areas. They are slow moving gentle creatures.  Their diet consists of aquatic plants and they consume 10-15% of their body weight each day in vegetation.  Although they graze on the bottom of the water, they surface every three to five minutes to breathe--more often when they are active.  This need to surface sometimes results in their being struck by the propellers of watercraft.  In fact, the West Indian manatee has no natural enemies and will often live to 60 years of age or more unless it is injured by fish hooks, monofilament line entanglement, vandalism or other human-related mishaps.  At present there are just a little over 2,500 West Indian manatees left in the United States.  Female manatees do not reproduce until they are about 5 years old and males are not sexually mature until about 9 years of age.  A mature female produces a single calf about every two to five years.  The gestation period is about 13 months long and a calf may remain with its mother for two years.

West Indian manatees in the United States are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal. West Indian manatees are also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978 which states: "It is unlawful for any person, at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb any manatee." Anyone convicted of violating Florida's state law faces a possible maximum fine of $1,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 60 days. Conviction on the federal level is punishable by a fine of up to $50,000 and/or one year in prison.  Programs like Adopt-A-Manatee and the efforts of county governments in Florida are attempting to protect and increase the numbers of these "gentle giants."


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