‘Beautiful’ Manatees steeped in history

A manatee glides through the water at Blue Spring State Park.
A manatee glides through the water at Blue Spring State Park. Herald Archive, 2015

The dive boat pulled up to the dock.

A face appeared in the water, displayed its pink tongue, and then sang in a haunting beautiful voice:

“Come away with me and we’ll kiss — On a mountaintop — Come away with me — And I’ll never stop loving you.” (Written and performed by Norah Jones on her 2002 song “Come Away With Me.”)

The vision faded. I actually was looking at a manatee, a member of an animal order (group) called “Sirenia.” The word “siren” comes from an old story about beautiful girls that lived in the sea during the time of Hercules called “sirens.”

Legend has it that some lonely sailors thought these manatees were mermaids. I had been at sea for only a half-day of scuba diving.

Who knows? Maybe I was reliving a past life. Or, it may have been related to an excess amount of nitrogen or even spicy food. But, the manatee sure had a pretty face with a pink tongue that screamed out to be French kissed.

Christopher Columbus mentioned in his log that the “mermaids” he had seen during his voyages to the New World were not quite as beautiful as the sailors had told him.

The dive boat captain, apparently as wise as old Columbus, was not fooled. He, unlike the ancient Greek sailors who were put into a trance and crashed their ships into the rocks when hearing the songs of the sirens, did not crash into the dock. Perhaps the captain knew that manatees didn’t sing but actually communicate by squealing under water to demonstrate fear, stress or excitement.

The four living species of the order Sirenia are the Amazonian manatee, West Indian manatee and African manatee, and their smaller relative the dugong, which lives in Australia.

Manatees, the only plant-eating marine mammals in modern times, spend up to eight hours a day using their muscular lips to consume up to 10 percent of their body weight in aquatic vegetation. This chewing takes its toll. A manatee’s teeth (all molars) are constantly being replaced.

The West Indian manatee ranges from the southern United States throughout the Caribbean Islands, Central America, and to northern South America.

Our new friend, the Florida manatee, lives in many Florida waterways, up the eastern coastline into Georgia, the Carolinas, west to Texas and as far north as Massachusetts during warm months.

Florida’s manatee population is estimated at approximately 6,000. Since the 1970s, Crystal River and the Kings Bay area have been the most popular in Florida where people swim with and are monitored around manatees.

Adult manatees typically are nine to 10 feet long and weigh around 1,000 pounds, but they may grow to over 13 feet and weigh more than 3,500 pounds. They are gray in color but algae growing on their skin may make them appear green or brown.

Manatees have fine hairs on their bodies and stiff whiskers on their face and lips. Despite their small eyes and lack of outer ears, manatees are thought to see and hear quite well.

Their two fore limbs are used for slow movements and to grasp vegetation while eating. The big rounded, flattened tail is for swimming. They are very agile and can swim upside down, roll, do somersaults or move vertically in the water.

A manatee’s lungs are two-thirds the length of its body, enabling it to surface only approximately every five minutes to breathe through its nostrils (its mouth is used for eating). It can hold its breath for as long as 20 minutes when resting.

Manatees are estimated to live 60 years in protected environments.

Females are single moms raising their calves until they are about 2 years old. Only about half of juvenile manatees that reach adulthood survive into their early 20s.

During the winter months, manatees head for warm waters, such as springs, energy center discharge canals and down to the Keys, where many can be seen in the canals and shallow water. The manatee is protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal.

(The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month announced a proposal to change the manatee’s protection status from endangered to threatened. The change would not, the Service said, affect federal protections for the manatee.)

There are some important rules to follow when you are in areas populated by manatees (Florida’s official mammal), which have been proclaimed by Governor Rick Scott as a “distinctive, valuable, and beloved natural resource.”

Do not pursue or chase a manatee if you see one while you are swimming, snorkeling, diving or operating a boat. If one happens to be near you, look, but don’t touch, poke, prod or attempt to ride it.

Don’t feed manatees or give them fresh water. Sometimes it is difficult to avoid accidentally giving manatees fresh water. Manatees love fresh water and show up when folks are rinsing off their boats.

Many of the manatees spotted in the Keys have big scars from boat propeller cuts. It is very important to heed warnings about going slow in posted manatee areas and to avoid manatee refuge areas.

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