Florida is home to a wide array of wondrous creatures, from endangered Florida panthers and American alligators to gopher tortoises. But, Florida’s manatees are certainly the state’s most iconic wild inhabitants. A sub-species of the West Indian manatee, the marine mammals are found in freshwater, brackish water, and saltwater ecosystems throughout coastal Florida. These waters include tidal estuaries, coastal bays, slow-rolling rivers, and man-made canals.
Weighing up to 1,200 pounds and growing to nearly 10 feet in length, manatees prefer tranquil or slow-moving waters, and the gentle giants are also particular about water depth and temperature. Manatees are rarely found in waters deeper than 20 feet, and typically dwell in the shallows, at depths of three to seven feet.
Despite their size, the marine mammals are also highly sensitive to cold stress and must seek out water temperatures above 68 degrees Fahrenheit, which means during the winter, they must migrate in search of ideal conditions. Consistently warm water temperatures often draw the creatures to Florida’s natural springs and spring-fed rivers like the Adventure Coast’s Weeki Wachee Springs, during the winter.
Besides water conditions, manatees are also drawn to specific locations based on the availability of resources. The herbivorous mammals seek out habitats with thriving seagrass or ample freshwater vegetation, and spend a significant portion of their time grazing—they eat 1o to 15% of their body weight in a single day! In order to nosh on all that grass, manatees have a unique dental adaptation called marching molars. New teeth are continuously formed in the back of the jaw and move forward to replace chompers that wear down and fall out over time. This allows manatees to continue grazing for the duration of their lives, even though all that noshing can be tough on their teeth.
Given their proclivity for enjoying extended bouts of underwater grazing, manatees are sometimes referred to as sea cows, but the marine mammals are actually more closely related to elephants and hyrax, small, rock-dwelling mammals found in Africa and the Middle East. They have also been compared to another majestic marine creature–the mythical mermaid.
Manatees are members of the order Sirenia, named for the alluring sirens of Greek mythology. For centuries, sirenians have fueled mermaid myths around the world. While sailing near the Dominican Republic, Christopher Columbus even famously reported encountering a mermaid after spotting manatees in the water. This was the first written record of the marine mammals in North America.
In the wild, manatees have no natural predators, and the creatures can live from 4o to 60 years. However, the marine mammals do face a number of threats and environmental challenges, including habitat loss, pollution, and the risk of fatal collisions with watercraft. In the United States, manatees are protected under both the Marine Mammal Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species of 1973. In Florida the creatures are also protected under the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. The state of Florida has also developed speed zones for watercraft in areas frequented by manatees.
The manatees need to surface frequently, and their penchant for warm, shallow waters puts slow-moving manatees at risk of hazardous encounters with humans. While manatees can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes, they typically surface to breathe every two to five minutes, which can lead to fatal collisions with recreational watercraft. Additionally, their grayish coloring can also make manatees hard to spot in the water, so being aware of speed zones is essential for boaters in areas frequented by the marine mammals.
Manatees’ fondness for munching on aquatic vegetation also puts them at risk of ingesting discarded fishing tackle or monofilament line. Anglers can help protect them by disposing of fishing lines using the recycling tubes strategically located at fishing spots and boat launches throughout the Adventure Coast.
If you encounter a wild manatee, it is an unforgettable experience, and an extraordinary way to experience Florida’s rich biodiversity. However, human engagement can potentially alter the behavior of wild manatees, and put the gentle creatures at risk. During an encounter with wild manatees, it’s important to give the creatures plenty of space, and remember that it is illegal to harass the marine mammals in any way.
Florida’s Adventure Coast has 200,000 acres of protected parklands and 10 different stops along the Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, and so provides ample opportunities for visitors to spy manatees. The region’s coastal parks and preserves are the perfect place to start.
Situated along the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Bayport Park offers manatee-spotters plenty of vantage points, and has a boat launch for paddlers and plenty of picnic spots. You can also spot them slightly further inland at Jenkins Creek Park and Linda Pedersen Park in the coastal waterways that connect to the Gulf of Mexico.
At Linda Pedersen Park, the 40-foot viewing tower offers a great way to scan the horizon for the massive marine mammals, and allows you to soak up the panoramic views of the Gulf of Mexico at the same time. For paddlers, the 1.7-mile Bayport-Linda Pedersen Paddling Trail connects Bayport Park and Linda Pedersen Park and offers the chance to catch glimpses of browsing manatees, along with dolphins, bald eagles, and osprey.
Even further inland, Weeki Wachee Springs and the Weeki Wachee River harbor manatees, especially during cooler months. The 74-degree year-round water temperature draws manatees to Weeki Wachee Springs, and will once in a while appear with underwater performers in the famed mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. You can also participate in the park’s 5.5-mile kayak and paddleboard tours on the crystalline Weeki Wachee River. This is a perfect opportunity to catch a glimpse of the park’s famed winter visitors.
Manatees are easiest to spot during the winter when dropping temperatures drive them out of the Gulf of Mexico and into warmer, shallower waters. The shallower waters make them easier to spot from the shore. While binoculars aren’t necessary, polarized sunglasses can be helpful, especially on bright, sunny days, when there is a glare on the water.
Written by Malee Baker Oot for Matcha in partnership with Florida's Adventure Coast.
Featured image provided by Robert Bonde, USGS