~ The Manatee ~

In the quiet backwaters, just below the surface, lurks the fabled manatee, a cuddly "sea cow" that often relaxes in the shallow water. Human onlookers delight in spotting one, especially when it suddenly takes a splash. Manatees are surprisingly agile and can perform somersaults, tail stands and other graceful underwater maneuvers.

These large, seal-shaped mammals can reach a length of 4.5 meters and weigh more than 1,000 kilograms. No wonder. Manatees eat seagrass and other submerged vegetation for 6 to 8 hours a day.

The surface layer of their finely wrinkled skin is continually sloughing off, possibly to reduce the build-up of surface algae.

The whiskered mammals live in the mouths of jungle rivers, lagoons and bays from Florida to Brazil, including several Caribbean islands. But their numbers are small : around 1,800 in the south-eastern U.S., concentrated in Florida, for instance.

Several natural factors make it hard to sustain a vigorous manatee population. Manatees reproduce slowly. They don't successfully breed, usually, until they are seven years old, and females deliver only one calf every three to five years.

Manatees are extremely susceptible to cold, and in turn, the cold may make them more susceptible to diseases. During the winter, many manatees move toward sites such as power plants that discharge warm water.

Human threats to the manatee also abound: loss of habitat, hunting and collision with boats. Fishers and boaters with outboard motors often move through the manatees' habitat and boat strikes are a leading cause of mortality in Florida and an increasing problem in Belize.

Boat operators can slow down. But chasing manatees or even just riding beside them can disturb the creatures.

Another threat is plastic gill nets, which entangle manatees so they drown. Some guides encourage fishermen to set their nets parallel to the beach, not perpendicular, so the manatees have a better chance of survival.

The wide-ranging sea cow needs large areas of protected marine habitat. When researchers have radio-tracked manatees to check loss of habitat, they find that manatees often hug the shoreline and travel from one food source to another.

That leads researchers to think maybe establishing several "safe zones" will help the wide-ranging manatees survive. In the Dominican Republic, two marine reserves, part of The Nature Conservancy's "Parks in Peril," serve as ports in a storm for manatees.

Another route to protecting them may be manatee tourism. Charging tourists for a glimpse of the rotund creatures may bring in more money which in turn will encourage people to be more protective of them.

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