Florida bound? Consider seeking out the manatee.
A migratory animal, the manatee moves seasonally throughout the rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, and coastal areas of the southeast U.S., following warm water. It cannot live in cold water. (Considering its size, this seems positively un-Darwinian.) In spite of the animal’s girth, it has relatively little body fat. It can live in salt water, brackish water (a combination of salt and fresh water), and fresh water.
On average, West Indian manatees are about 10 feet long and weigh between 1,000 to 1,500 pounds. They are avid herbivores—the average adult can eat 100 pounds of sea grass a day. And anyone who has seen a manatee, especially in captivity, will know these strict vegetarians are very messy eaters.
Mythology says that long-ago sailors thought manatees were mermaids. (Perhaps they’d been at sea too long.) They belong to the order Sirenia (from the word "siren"). West Indian manatees are related to the Amazonian manatee, the West African manatee, and the South Pacific dugong. A fifth member of the Sireniaorder was the Steller’s sea cow which was hunted to extinction in the late 18th century.
If the animal has no natural enemies, why are they endangered? About 43 percent of manatee deaths from 1976 through 1996 were human-related—boating accidents mostly, and ingestion of fishhooks, litter, and monofilament line. But mostly the manatee has lost its habitat to human development.
Winter is when most manatees gather in Florida, but some do hang out year-round. If you’re heading to Florida, here are a few places where you can see these adorable animals, and learn more.
For manatees in the wild:
Blue Spring State Park, Orange City; (904) 775-3663. Thirty miles north of Orlando, Blue Spring State Park is a popular manatee hangout. Best time to see them: November through March. Open year-round.
Florida Power and Light Co., Manatee Observation Center, Riviera Beach; (800) 552-8440. Warm-water manatee gathering place on Florida’s east coast. Open January 1 through February 28.
Lee County Manatee Park, Ft. Myers; (941) 694-3537. On Florida’s southwest coast. Best time: November through March. Open year-round.
Tampa Electric Company, Tampa, Manatee Viewing Center; (813) 228-4289. Open seasonally, usually mid-November through April.
For manatees in captivity:
Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, Homosassa; (352) 628-5343. Seventy-five miles north of Tampa, rehabilitation center and refuge for orphaned or injured manatees.
Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa; (813) 935-8552. Manatee tank and exhibit, licensed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rescue and medically treat manatees.
The Living Seas at Epcot/Walt Disney World, Orlando; (407) 560-7688. Two-level manatee tank, exhibit.
Sea World of Florida, Orlando; (407) 351-3600. Two-level manatee tank, with exhibit, licensed to rescue and treat manatees.
Miami Seaquarium, Miami; (305) 361-5705. Exhibit, licensed to rescue and treat manatees.
For more on the manatee, visit the Save the Manatee Club.
This article was first published in November 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.