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What Is a Manatee?

Wendy is a native Floridian who loves manatees. She loves to travel with family when not treating patients as an LCSW.

What is a Manatee?


Types of Manatees

Manatees, also called Sea Cows, are marine mammals that reside in the warm waters off the coast of Florida, South America, Africa. There are three species of manatees, the Amazonian manatee that lives along the Amazon River's drainage in South America, the African manatee that lives along the coast of Western Africa, and the West Indian manatee that lives along the southern and eastern coast of the US. Two of the three species of manatees have been listed as endangered in the past. In 1967, the West Indian manatee, also known as the Florida manatee, was listed as endangered, and in 1970 the Amazonian manatee was placed on the list. Due to conservation efforts, discussed later, however, in 2017 the Florida manatee's status was changed from endangered to threatened.

Specifically the Florida Manatee

The three types of manatees have many similar characteristics, so this article will specifically focus on the Florida Manatee. The Florida manatee is a dull gray color. It has a rounded snout with a long, tapered body and a flat, rounded tail that it uses for swimming. It has small flippers in front but none in back. Manatees need warm water for their survival, so in the warm months, they are found in waters off the coast of Florida mostly, but they can also be found in coastal waters around neighboring states. In colder months, when the water temperature begins to drop, manatees must find warmer water, so they move inland into the many springs throughout Florida such as Homassassa Springs and Manatee Springs, and the warm waters from power stations surrounding Kennedy Space Center and other large industrial areas. Manatees can not tolerate water temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and spring waters stay at a consistent temperature throughout the year that averages approximately 72 degrees Fahrenheit. They tend to migrate back to their same winter spot each year and it is common to see 300 or more together.

Florida manatees can grow to 8-13 feet long and can weigh up to 3,650 pounds. They are herbivores, eating many different types of water plants. They can consume up to 10% of their body weight daily, which is a very large amount of vegetation. Manatees in captivity are fed lettuce and green plants.

As mammals, manatees must breathe air to live. They can remain submerged for about 20 minutes at a time, and when they surface for air, they replenish about 90% of their air supply.

Female manatees give birth to one calf about every two or three years. The mother provides milk for the baby for one to two years, and they are taught very early to eat plants as well.

Two rehabbing manatees

Two rehabbing manatees

Manatee Conservation

Though they have been on the endangered list and are now on the threatened list, manatees have no natural predator. There are no animals in nature that hunt manatees. Years ago, manatees were hunted for their meat and pelts. As their numbers dwindled, it became illegal to hunt or disturb them. Now the main concerns for manatees include drowning in fishing nets, collisions with motor boats, dwindling habitats, and unusually cold winters in Florida which cause waters to cool down quickly.

Efforts are being made to attempt to control some of these conditions. For example, Florida has established "no wake" zones in areas where manatees are commonly found which means that motorized watercraft must slow down in these areas and watch for the animals. There are also advocates for restoring natural springs in Florida to protect the habitats of the manatees. Most importantly, there are many education programs aimed at teaching children and adults about manatees and how to protect them. Programs such as Save the Manatee Club and Defenders of Wildlife put out educational material, allow the public to adopt a manatee (figuratively), and assist in getting laws passed. Rehabilitation programs such as ones found at Homassassa Springs, Miami Seaquarium, and Seaworld Orlando take in sick or injured manatees and rehabilitate them, then either return them to the wild, or if they determine this is not possible, they will place them in a long term habitat. This allows the public to view manatees up close when they might otherwise not be able to, and receive education about manatees.

Homassassa Springs manatee

Homassassa Springs manatee

Snacking on lettuce

Snacking on lettuce

Fascinating Facts

  • A group of manatees is called an aggregation.
  • Manatees were often mistaken for mermaids. It was noted that in 1493 Christopher Columbus mistook a manatee for a mermaid in one of his voyages to the new world.
  • Manatees are most closely related to elephants.
  • Manatees continually replace their teeth throughout their lifetime, with older ones falling out and new ones coming in behind them.
  • The oldest living manatee born in captivity was born on July 21, 1948. He was named Snooty. He died on July 23, 2017, 2 days after his 69th birthday.
  • A male manatee is a bull, a female is a cow, and a baby manatee is a calf.
  • The gestation period for pregnant female manatees is 11-13 months.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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© 2019 TripleAMom


TripleAMom (author) from Florida on October 29, 2019:

Marlene that’s great that she is supporting manatees They are fascinating and amazing animals very docile animals though they look intimidating. Glad you were able to learn more about them

Marlene Bertrand from USA on October 29, 2019:

My daughter supports an organization that is looking out for the preservation of manatees. I often wondered what a manatee was and why she picked them to save. Now I know. They are fascinating mammals.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 17, 2019:

Wendy, it's good to have you back among us. I'm sorry I missed this one earlier. As for manatees, I gotta tell ya, it would freak me out to be swimming and have one of them bump my leg. lol You guys in Florida have all sorts of creepy, crawly, swimmy things we don't have here in Washington. :)

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on September 20, 2019:

Living in Florida in my youth, I remember seeing these creatures in canals and shallow water where boats docked. They are truly fascinating. It's a relief to know that their numbers are increasing again. Thanks for these great photos and some history and facts about them.

TripleAMom (author) from Florida on September 18, 2019:

ES- Manatees are amazing and any time we see one here in Fl it is magical. They are huge but very gentle. This is why they are so much at risk from people. They are curious. We were in the Keys once and a manatee swam into the boat basin. He rolled in his back and was slurping the fresh water from a boaters hose who was washing his boat. Later we were snorkeling outside of the basin and he was right below us eating. It was amazing to watch him.

J Zod from Nairobi on September 18, 2019:


I really enjoyed reading this article. The manatee is a very fascinating creature. I watched a documentary about the Amazon manatee a while back and I was intrigued at the sheer size of these animals. They need to be protected from human activities though.

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