I was carefully navigating a very narrow and shallow channel the other day when I spotted a massive manatee slipping past our boat heading in the opposite direction. Fortunately, the manatee was able to hug the edge of the shallow canal and avoid our sharp propellor. In spite of his massive size, none of my fishermen spotted him until I stopped the boat and pointed to where the he was starting to come up to the surface to breath. My fishermen were thrilled at having the opportunity to observe such an amazing animal in his natural element.
A manatee’s blob like physique gives them the appearance of being very chubby (OK ... fat!); however the reality is these fascinating behemoths actually have a relatively thin layer of body fat. So when crisp, fall temperatures begin to cool off the northern waters, manatees intuitively realize they need to migrate to a warmer locale in order to maintain a stable body temperature and avoid hypothermia. In fact, if a manatee remains in water below 68 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period they can actually start to develop a dangerous cold stress syndrome which not only slows down their metabolism, but also puts them at risk of developing serious intestinal problems, as well as pneumonia infections.
To see a lone manatee swimming along is not too unusual as they are solitary by nature. However there are times when you will see them in groups. During mating season it is not uncommon to observe an aggregation of five to six males pursuing a mature fertile female manatee (which typically breed every two to five years). Once pregnant it will be 12 months before she delivers a newborn baby calf that typically is 4 to 4.5 feet long and weighs in at 60 to 70 pounds. A baby manatee will often stay close to their mother’s side for up to two years.
Most adult manatees love to lazily forage on grasses in shallow waters for six to eight hours every day. The constant chewing on abrasive bottom plants, which is also mixed with bottom sand, causes their teeth to quickly wear down. To solve this problem a manatee’s teeth must constantly be replaced. As a result, a manatee’s new teeth form in the back of the jaw and then slowly move forward toward the front of the mouth where they eventually fall out.
These incredible animals are normally very passive. I had the fudge scared out of me while scuba diving off the coast of Cuba when I swam around a large coral head and ran smack dab into a massive manatee. Apparently it must have startled him, too, as the normally slow moving (3-5 mph) manatee quickly sprinted away (in bursts they can reach 20 mph)!
The onset of winter months in the Keys requires boaters to be on the lookout for these lumbering ‘sea cows’, as they will often seek refuge in our warm coastal waters and canals during cold snaps. Hopefully observant boaters will help prevent a serious collision with one of these gentle giants!
Capt. Pete Peterson welcomes comments and suggestions sent to email@example.com.