Manatees: The Endangered Mermaids

Mary Kathryn Huddleston
Mrs. Roberts

Along the River Rhine between Mainz and Koblenz and hidden somewhere on the 430 foot cliffs, beautiful, mysterious, wicked sirens lure boaters and their crafts to death and destruction on the cliffs. The sirens were the Lorelei. Aphrodite’s fishtail portion of her body was allotted to lesser deities called Tritons. Tritons, male and female, rendered service and homage to Aphrodite. Early mariners were prepared to encounter mermaids and mermen in different forms at sea. These mariners found their mermaids in dugongs and manatees, the Sirenians.

It is difficult to understand how mariners could mistake manatees for mermaids. The manatee is a mammal that looks like an aquatic version of an elephant. The manatee’s skin is grey to grayish brown or light to dark grey with a pink belly patch. There are barnacles and scattered hairs on the back. The manatee’s front flippers are used for steering and are paddle-shaped. There are forelimbs inside each flipper and toenails like an elephant’s on the outside; however, there are no visible toe divisions on the skin of the flipper. Its tail is round and flat. The tail propels the manatee through the water slowly, but if startled, the manatee can reach speeds up to 35 mph for short distances. The West Indian manatee can be up to thirteen feet in length and up to 3500 pounds. Its prehensile mouth parts are like an elephant’s trunk, except the manatee’s “trunk” is not as big and is bristly and split.

The manatee is an aquatic mammal that lives in water 3 to 10 feet deep. The West Indian Manatee resides in the rivers of Central Florida, along the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Coast. The Amazonian Manatee exists only the Amazon River system, and the African Manatee occupies the rivers of tropical West Africa. The water in which the manatee dwells can be no colder than 68 degrees Fahrenheit. If the water is cold in the Gulf, the West Indian Manatee will usually migrate to Kings Bay, where there is a constant water temperature of 72-73 degrees and the underwater plants are a plentiful food source. There are two reasons for migration. The first is water temperature. If the water temperature drops, the manatee could catch a respiratory illness, the most common cause of natural death among manatees. The second reason is the need for low salinity drinking water. Power plants, such as Florida Power & Light, provide sanctuary in cold weather. Patric Rose, Marine Mammal Coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), wrote in Life Magazine, “Wouldn’t you go to a power company if you were cold?”(Clark 32). Some manatee sanctuaries are Crystal River, Blue Spring Run, and Kings Bay.

Most of the day manatees spend eating. Eating usually takes six to eight hours. Manatees usually consume 10 to 20 percent of their body weight in food each day. Manatees eat submerged vegetation like hydrilla, ribbon grass, turtle grass, and manatee grass. Manatees are primarily vegetarians. Their protein intake is mainly tiny animals in the grass and the algae that they eat. Miami Seaquarium was spending about $2400 per month on manatee food. The Facility now uses commercially available hydroponic units. These units grow dense mats of various grasses for food. Using these units cut their costs by one-third.

Despite its large size, the manatee is not an aggressive animal. A report from Caloosahatchee River said that manatees were very curious and friendly. They lingered near the boat, studied the people in the boat, and clung to the anchor line. Manatees are very gentle and have never been known to attack for any reason. Sometimes they are so tame and trusting, it is not healthy for the animals.

Even though manatees are friendly and gentle, they are usually solitary. If some manatees are grouped together, called semi-social groups, it is because they are at the same place by chance. Bulls usually group when a female is ready to mate. If the manatees are in a group, they are very playful. They hug with their flippers, kiss, do somersaults and headstands. Just like children, manatees play tag, chase, and bump each other.

Manatees are slow to reproduce. They usually have one calf every two to five years. When a cow is