Sea Cow Know How

Need-to-know tidbits about the friendly Florida manatee.

“Come on, Tommy! Let’s follow it!” My husband and his best friend from Chicago are kayaking down Phillippi Creek when a dark shadow appears feet from their vessels. About the size of a sofa, it’s definitely larger than their Hobies. Hesitantly, Tommy follows along, keeping a slight distance behind his guide and the creature. Hours later, enjoying a beer back on safe land, our guest quietly inquires, “So, are those, um, meat eaters?” It was only then that I realized he had no idea what they were accompanying. That to him, a Midwestern visitor, a massive animal looming six feet from your face may arouse a little hesitation, not realizing that manatees are the kindest, gentlest creatures in our waters. In honor of Tommy and all critter curious comrades, here are need-to-know tidbits about the friendly Florida manatee.

Not as playful as dolphins, not as fierce as sharks, not as smart as whales, the manatee gets brushed aside for its aloofness and awkwardness. They may not be the life of the party and that gets them pushed in the corner. They’re that strange type of ugly that’s inexplicably cute. But their gentle spirit and kind eyes give them an allure I cannot deny. Give them a real chance and their soothing souls will win you over.

The nickname of the manatee is “sea cow” because they incessantly graze on vegetation and they’re slow and large. Grasses along the water’s edge serves as their fields, allowing them to nosh and munch all day long. 

Manatees are mammals and give birth to live young that are larger than my 8-year-old. They breathe air through their noses and nurse their babies from the manatee version of an armpit.

Those lines you see on their backs? Those are scars from boat propellers. It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to use caution in manatee waters and follow the no wake zone guidelines. The hum of a boat may arouse a little snooping and lead to injury. Manatees are curious, have poor vision, and are not that fast. Imagine it’s your great great uncle and act accordingly.

It’s injuries such as these that have led manatees to being on the endangered species list since 1967, but it’s safe driving and education that has recently changed their status from endangered to threatened. (Woo hoo!) With no natural predators, it’s only us humans who are putting these aquatic hippies in peril. 

Legend says that manatees are the original mermaids, that sailors saw them and thought they were beautiful swimming ladies. Rum of yore must have been stronger than today - with their disproportionately small heads, prehensile lips, spoon-shaped tails, bulbous bodies, and whiskers, there is no denying that they are one of Mother Nature’s more unique creatures. I love manatees, but wouldn’t confuse one with Ariel.

The best time to see manatees is weather dictated. They like it warm and luxurious. No stranger to leisure, manatees meander, eat, socialize, and soak in toasty waters. Here in Sarasota, they arrive around April as the water becomes warmer and stick around until November. During the “cooler” months (by Florida standards), they venture to warm water springs and the seas surrounding the power plants in Tampa where the water is much warmer. Easy way to remember - if the locals are willing to jump in, it’s manatee season.

If you happen to be in the area during manatee season, the best place to see them is the shallower waters of the beach or canals and creeks – it’s where the warm water all-you-can-eat buffet can be found. Mama manatees prefer to take their babies where the boats aren’t as much of a danger, so canals and saltwater creeks are prime parenting locations. If you’re at the beach, keep those eyes peeled on the water. You’ll see a large dark oval – sometimes just one, sometimes with friends - moving slowly. Don’t freak out! It’s not going to eat anyone. Just watch for a nose popping out of the water as these lovely creatures grace you with their peaceful presence. 

Manatees utilize flatulence to control their buoyancy. Many times, the only way to know if they are nearby is a stream of large circular tell-tale bubble rings.

If the stars didn’t align and place a sea cow in your line of vision in the wild, Sarasota offers a few places to see them up close and guaranteed. Mote Marine houses two manatees, Hugh and Buffett, in their exhibit. Watching these two gentle creatures swim and nosh on romaine is akin to viewing a massive lava lamp. The bulbous shapes lazing by, going up, coming back. It’s quite soothing. My kids like it best when they poop. Hey, whatever floats your boat.