Manatees are the sweet, gentle giants of the Florida Keys
Nature has provided the Florida Keys with one of it's greatest gifts - the Florida manatees.
Endearingly sweet and clumsy, they're a gentle spirit that lives in the water, slowly moving around in search of food.
The ancient mariners often spoke of rapturous sightings while at sea.
Their stories laced with visions of beautiful mermaids. However, it's widely believed that what they saw, was in fact these gentle creatures.
These occurrences were so common, that even Christopher Columbus recorded seeing three "mermaids". His observation of the sightings was that they were not "half as beautiful as they are painted."
Manatees Are The Mermaids of Old
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Florida Park Service Collection
The official marine mammal of the State of Florida, there are approximately 3,000 of these endangered species living in our borders.
In total, there are well under 5,000 of these gentle giants alive in the waters off the United States. To help keep their numbers from spiraling downward, they are protected by law.
The West Indies manatee prefers warmer water. This means they primarily inhabit the coastal regions off the Florida Keys during the winter, where plant life is especially abundant.
During the summer months, these slow moving creatures migrate further north. They're occasionally seen as far north as Massachusetts, but they're more frequently spotted along the coastline of Georgia and the Carolinas.
They'll also migrate west along the Alabama - Louisiana coast as far west as Texas.
Manatee Walking Under Water
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
These mammals also prefer slow moving bodies of water, where they can meander around in search of food. They typically forage at a speed of about 2 - 5 miles per hour, but when they have to move quickly, they can reach speeds upwards of 20 mph for short bursts.
Plants are their primary diet source, but occasionally they'll consume small fish and other marine life. Even though they're seen predominantly moving slowly in search of food, you'll also spot them submerged on the bottom resting, only surfacing for air when needed.
These mammals are relatively substantial in size, averaging about 10 - 12 feet in length and weighing between 800 - 1,200 pounds. They are also long lived, with the average life span running between 50 - 60 years in their natural environment.
An amazing fact is that these creatures are related to the elephant and a small gopher like mammal. Of course when you see one up close, you can somewhat see the family resemblance - to the elephant at least.
The skin is probably the closest similarity, being a dark gray brown in color and thick and wrinkled like you would see on an elephant. They also have small eyes which elephants do as well.
However, unlike the elephant, they have very small ears and they most certainly do not possess trunks. Their bodies are rounded somewhat like an elephant, but the body tapers down to form a paddle-like tail. Their front legs or forearms resemble flippers and this helps them swim or crawl through shallow water in search of food.
Mother and Baby
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Probably the only obvious similarity to the rodent side of their family are the whiskers on the face. Personally, I think they look somewhat like a walrus without tusk. Plus their sweet faces resemble that of a Shar Pei, complete with the rounded muzzle, wrinkles, and whiskers.
Even though these creatures are protected by law, they still fall victim to a variety of tragedies.
The most common form of injury they encounter is contact with boats and propellers. Throughout the Florida Keys, Charlie Manatee warning signs are posted, cautioning boaters to be careful as they maneuver through water where they are known to live.
Ospreys Often Nest on Warning Signs for Boaters
Despite their large size, these creatures are relatively delicate and are adversely affected by a variety of other conditions which can have strong negative impact on their survival.
They're not capable of withstanding cold temperatures and the two severe cold snaps of 2001 - 2002 and 2010 were hard on them.
They also can succumb to the ravages of hurricanes as they pass through an area.
Hotter water temperatures also are a problem as this causes algae to increase, forming red tide which is toxic to them.
Propeller Marks on a Manatee
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Dr. David E. LaHart Collection
Disease, and flood control gates which crush them, are other challenges they face. Factor in a slow maturity rate of about 5 years, a long gestation period of about 1 year, the nursing and caring of a youngster for approximately 2 years, and calves only being born every 2 - 5 years, and you have the recipe for a slow rebound in numbers.
Catching a glimpse of these quiet, often elusive creatures, is truly a special event that one always remembers.
We were in the Everglades National Park at Flamingo Visitor Center the first time we saw one. I'll never forget the excitement we all felt when we heard someone loudly shout, "Manatee, there's a manatee!" Everyone in the area raced to the marina and down to the waters edge, in hopes of catching a glimpse of this rare creature.
No matter what Christopher Columbus said, they're more beautiful than when painted as mermaids. I hope that one day, you too will be able to recall the first time you were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one these gentle creatures.