Manatees are curious and playful creatures and will happily interact with humans if you stay quiet and let them initiate contact. The best experience is actually snorkelling or swimming with manatees as the bubbles created during scuba diving can scare them away, also they tend to be in water a matter of metres deep so there is no problem viewing them from the surface or free diving down.
Manatees are sensitive to movement and sound, which is why the scuba bubbles scare them. You should also never get beneath these gentle creatures as this behaviour also frightens them.
The main point to remember for manatee encounters is passive interaction. Quietly observe and do not chase or bother the manatee if it is resting and especially do not try to touch them. The manatee if comfortable will come to you and sometimes can be very curious and get very close, but it is their decision. This can be a very exciting experience but you have to remember to follow the rules put in place as they are there to give you the best encounter and allow these encounters to continue for others. Most tour operators will explain all the rules and inform you of how best to act before they take you to swim with the manatees.
Manatees are large aquatic marine mammals commonly known as sea cows. They can reach 4m in length but on average tend to be around 3m long and between 400-550kg in weight. They can live up to 60years old.
There are three living species, the Amazonian manatee located in the Amazon basin, the West Indian Manatee located in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea and the West African Manatee in West Africa.
Manatees spend most of their time in shallow coastal waters 1-2 metres deep and have to surface for air few minutes depending on activity they can stay under up to 20mins if sleeping. About half of their day is spend sleeping and the other half grazing for food. They have a very low metabolism so cannot tolerate cold water below 20C and prolonged exposure to the cold will kill them. An example of this is the West Indian Manatee which congregate at Crystal River, Florida from November to March to take advantage of the year round water temperature of 22C.
Manatees have few predators, sharks and alligators have been known to prey on them, but do not significantly affect their population. Manatees main worry are humans and human related issues. Habitat destruction, ship strikes, hunting and accidental deaths due to fishing entanglement or ingestion of fishing line are all causes of death. They are now listed as vulnerable to extinction. Florida have made it illegal to harm or injure a manatee and Brazil have outlawed hunting.
Manatees tend to breed every two years and have a gestation period of 12months, giving birth to just one calf at a time. This means that the populations cannot quickly recover from loss due to human impact.
More detailed information about Manatees can be found here.
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