The second most frequent question we get is about kayaking with manatee.
The Florida Manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee and is the largest species of the Order Sirenia. It is distantly related to the elephant. Their mouth consists of very mobile, prehensile lips (much like the end of an elephant’s trunk) which are used for grasping food and objects.
These light gray to brown gentle giants are herbivores, grazing on sea grasses and freshwater vegetation. They can consume 10-15% of their body weight each day. They live in fresh, brackish, and salt water and are rarely seen in water over 20 feet deep. Shallow water provides them with a generally steady food supply and warm water – both of which they need to survive.
This dependence on shallow water also means that their leading human-caused threats are collisions with boat hulls and cuts from boat propellers. In fact, individual manatee are identified by researchers by their propeller scars. Habitat loss due to coastal and springs area development is the biggest long-term threat and environmental factors such as climate change, sudden cold snaps and red tide also take their toll on the manatee population.
It’s estimated that only about 5000 Florida Manatee remain living in the wild. This is up considerably from a population of around 1,300 in 1991, but a record 829 manatee deaths were documented in 2013 – about 17% of the total population. Many of these died in an outbreak of red tide in southwest Florida and a still unidentified toxin in the Indian River. In 2014 371 died and in 2015 405 manatee died.
While most Florida Manatee spend the winter in Florida and south Georgia, during the summer they can travel quite a distance – all the way to Massachusetts and Texas. They use their broad, flat tails for propulsion and their flippers for steering. While they usually move as if in slow motion, they can swim at a steady pace of five mph and for short bursts can even top 15 mph. The largest recorded Florida manatee weighed over 3,600 lbs and was 15 ft long although most adults are 1,500-1,800 lbs and 10-12 feet.
Calves are born weighing between 60 and 70 pounds and measuring about 3-4 feet long. The young are born with molars (the only teeth manatees have), allowing them to consume sea grass within the first three weeks of birth. The mother will stay with the calf for two years. Manatees can live 50-60 years in the wild.
Manatees are mammals and must surface to breathe. While swimming, manatees take in air every three or four minutes. When they are resting, they can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes. You are most likely to see manatee during the winter months when manatee come in from the coasts to the freshwater springs where the water temperature remains constantly above 70 degrees.
It is very important for manatee watchers to understand that the manatees visit the springs in order to survive. Their lives literally depend on their being able to rest and feed in these waters. Watchers need to practice ‘passive observation’, particularly during this critical time. It is illegal to harass a manatee in any way.
There are lots of rules about your conduct around the Florida manatee – usually posted in areas where they hang out – but the best way to sum them up is: 1) Whether boating or swimming, if you see a manatee, remain still and on the surface. 2) Never directly approach a manatee. Allow them to approach you, if they are so inclined, but you should never pursue them. Mind Your Manatee Manners – please watch this video from the US Fish & Wildlife Service which explains why the manatee need you to mind your manners when you see a manatee.