While in Florida, one of the things on my “to do list” was to see a manatee. This was accomplished on a visit to Homosassa Springs State Park. They have several resident injured manatees that they are rehabilitating. Several times during the day they feed them, so you are guaranteed to see one. When possible they are re-released into the river to return to the Gulf of Mexico. Most injured manatees are that way due to run-ins with boat propellers.
The park also has other animals on display that they are keeping because they are too injured to return to the wild. There are lots of alligators and snakes. We saw three bald eagles, a caracara, two whooping cranes, and a variety of owls and waterfowl. Also there is a hippo there that was a TV and movie star in the 60s, who has been named an honorary Florida citizen to allow him to live out the rest of his years at this state park.
A few days later we rented a canoe at Crystal River. We wanted to see the Three Sisters Springs manatee sanctuary, although at this time of year most of the manatees have left the warmer spring waters and are heading out to the open Gulf. The Three Sisters Springs was a bit of a disappointment. The area was about as large as two Olympic swimming pools. The water was very clear and you could see some fish, but mostly it was people splashing about or snorkeling. We went back out into the murky channel and paddled out to King’s Bay which runs into the Crystal River and eventually the Gulf. Most of the channel was lined with houses and expensive boats—not the natural area we’d hope for. Once in the Bay there were still a lot of boats, but most of the shoreline was designated as wildlife refuge. We saw an osprey wading in some shallow water which surprised me because usually they dive out of the sky to catch fish, but maybe he was just resting. Other than that, we saw very little wildlife and decided to return to the rental place down the murky channel.
Right after we entered the channel, something big surfaced behind our canoe and to the left. My first thought was that it was a dolphin, but then I remembered a dolphin would have a dorsal fin and this didn’t. I was sorry I didn’t get a better look at it. A few paddle strokes later I saw it cruise past our canoe and this time I could clearly see it—it was a manatee! A real, wild, not-being-rehabilitated manatee!
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a lengthy list of “don’ts” for interacting with wild manatees, such as don’t chase them, don’t feed them, don’t separate a mother from her offspring, don’t touch or poke or prod them, and don’t try to stand on one. (It’s too bad that the last rule is even necessary to be stated!) We definitely didn’t chase it, but we were both headed in the same direction down a relatively narrow channel. We did warn some approaching boats to avoid it and the presence of the manatee caused a bit of a traffic jam. Eventually the manatee chose to navigate into a side channel (one lined with the aforementioned expensive houses and boats) and we continued on our way back to the rental place. So what started out as a rather dull canoe adventure ended on an extremely high note.
Adult manatees are usually about ten feet long and weigh around 1000 pounds, but can grow to over 13 feet and 3500 pounds. You’d think being a marine mammal they would be related to dolphins, whales or seals, but in fact their closest DNA relatives are elephants. When you see them eat, you notice how their muscular lips resemble the tip of an elephant’s trunk. When we think of evolution, it’s usually moving from water to land, but scientists say the manatees made the transition back from land into the water. They have pelvic bones, but they aren’t connected to the rest of their skeleton and are said to be remnant bones from when their ancestors lived on land.
A manatee has an exclusively vegetarian diet and they can eat up to 10% of their body weight per day. That’s a lot of vegetation! They have only grinding teeth, not biting teeth. Because they take in a lot of sand with their vegetation their teeth are constantly being worn down and replaced. New teeth form at the back of the jaw and slowly (one centimeter per month) move forward, and the front worn-down teeth fall out. Manatees can live over 60 years, but in the wild only about half of them reach their 20s.
Manatees surface every five minutes or so to breathe, but when resting they may stay submerged for up to 20 minutes. They are gray, unless algae grow on them, in which case they may appear green or brown. The ones we saw at Homosassa Springs were definitely greenish-brown, but the one we canoed past was quite gray.
Many think that the manatee was the origin of the mermaid stories. I have a hard time envisioning a manatee as a beautiful female human-fish, but then I haven’t been at sea for months at a time, either.
If you go to Florida, be sure to check out the natural flora and fauna. There’s more to Florida than the mouse!