Did you know that some of the legends about mermaids may have been inspired by manatee sightings? In early 1493, Christopher Columbus mistook a trio of manatees for these legendary beings, noting that they were “not half as beautiful as they were painted.”
While it’s certainly true that manatees might not have the same allure as the fanciful mermaid, these giant teddy bears are cute in their own way!
Of course, given their elephantine appearance, manatees might seem a little intimidating if you don’t know much about them. What can you expect from these giant creatures, and should you worry about meeting one in the wild? If you’re curious about these marine mammals—or if you’re hoping to schedule a visit to see one—here’s what you should know.
Are Manatees Friendly?
The answer to this question is an easy one: yes!
Nicknamed “gentle giants,” manatees are calm, non-aggressive animals that tolerate nearby human presences well. In fact, many of them flock to human swimmers out of curiosity and in search of interaction and even play.
One of the reasons these animals are so gentle is because they have no natural predators. Their large bodies, which can reach a length of ten feet and weigh around 1,000 pounds on average, would make them difficult prey for any nearby animals!
In spite of their large size, manatees are peaceful herbivores, not carnivores. They eat aquatic plants, often eating anywhere between 7-15% of their body weight every day! Because they have no need to catch and consume prey, they are often slow-moving and docile.
Where Can You Swim With Manatees?
Want to experience the friendliness of these gentle giants for yourself? If you’re hoping to swim with manatees, you’re in luck: there’s an easy way to do it, as long as you don’t mind making a trip.
In North America, the only place you can legally swim with manatees is in Crystal River, Florida, which lies an hour and a half north of Tampa. In the area of the river known as Kings Bay, both residents and tourists have the opportunity to interact with these curious creatures, who migrate to the warm waters each year. The best time to catch manatees in this habitat is from mid-November to late March, when the population can climb to several hundred manatees at once.
Both professional companies and wildlife conservation groups run tours in the area, allowing guests to swim, kayak, and canoe with manatees. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service licenses and regulates these groups to ensure the safety of the manatees.
How Can You Respect the Manatees You Swim With?
If you do choose to swim with manatees in Florida, it’s worth understanding a few best practices that can help you make the most of your trip while respecting the creatures you’re interacting with. Manatees are comfortable swimming alongside human divers, but that doesn’t mean you should forget that these animals are wild, and they deserve your respect. Here are a few rules to follow.
The calmer you are, the calmer any nearby manatees will be. This can encourage them to come closer to you, and it can also help reduce their stress or anxiety.
Don’t Touch the Manatees
As a general rule, you should expect to look without touching. Always keep to a safe distance to protect a manatee’s comfort zone.
Too many close interactions with humans can cause manatees to lose their natural fear of them, which can leave them vulnerable to harm. Don’t get too close to manatees, avoid harassing or pushing them in any way.
Snorkel Instead of Scuba Diving
Though scuba equipment doesn’t disturb our human ears, it can be unsettling for manatees. Instead of scuba diving, use snorkel gear to keep things quiet and calm during your trip.
Find a Guide Who Will Come With You
It’s always a good idea to hire a tour guide who will help you navigate this new experience, especially because any wildlife can be unpredictable at times. With a good guide, you’ll also have a better chance of finding manatees even in quieter times of the year.
Keep Away from Prohibited Areas
Human activity can affect the delicate balance of the areas where manatees live, which can in turn affect their primary food source: sea grass. If you notice any areas that are marked as safe spaces or sanctuaries for manatees, avoid entering and allow manatees to graze in peace. In addition, don’t pick the grass or try to feed it to the manatees!
How Can You Protect These Gentle Giants?
After learning all of the information above, you may be curious about one crucial question: are manatees endangered?
Unfortunately, manatees have been on the endangered species list since 1966. Although they have no natural predators, habitat loss is a major threat to their continued survival.
In addition, manatee deaths are common as a result of watercraft accidents, as boaters who strike these creatures may leave them wounded in their wake. These incidents have reached record highs in recent years.
To protect manatees, make sure to follow the rules listed above if you have the opportunity to swim with them. This ensures both your safety and the safety of these gentle giants.
You can also support conservation efforts by making donations to wildlife protection groups, or by purchasing items that help fund these efforts, so be sure to view here for more.
If you live in or are visiting the Florida area, you can also follow best practices on waterways by slowing your speed and checking for nearby manatees during travel. In addition, consider getting involved by volunteering with local organizations to clean up manatee habitats!
Protect Our Wildlife
Curious and gentle, manatees have long been beloved guests throughout our southern waterways. It’s safe to say that these non-aggressive mammals are fascinating creatures, but they’re also worthy of our continued respect and protection. To help keep manatees flocking back to their home, consider donating or volunteering whenever you can!
Want more helpful guides like this one? Be sure to take a look at our other posts for additional insights.