According to a ship log dated January 9, 1493, Christopher Columbus said that on the previous day he “distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.” What Columbus saw was probably manatees.
West Indian manatees are large, gray aquatic mammals with bodies that taper to a flat, paddle-shaped tail. They have two forelimbs, called flippers, with three to four nails on each flipper. Their head and face are wrinkled with whiskers on the snout. They are docile creatures and are often called sea cows.
The West Indian manatee is related to the West African manatee, the Amazonian manatee, the dugong, and Steller’s sea cow, which was hunted to extinction in 1768. The average adult manatee is about 10-13 feet long and weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds.
Manatees live in coastal waters and rivers and are gentle and slow-moving animals that spend most of their time eating, resting, and traveling. They mostly eat aquatic plants and consume floating, emergent, and submerged vegetation from freshwater, brackish, and saltwater environments. However small fish and invertebrates can sometimes be ingested along with the vegetation.
Because they are mammals, they must surface to breathe air. They may rest submerged at the bottom or just below the surface of the water, coming up to breathe on an average of every three to five minutes. When they are using a lot of energy, they may surface to breathe as often as every 30 seconds. When resting, manatees have been known to stay submerged for up to 20 minutes. With a single breath, manatees can replace 90 percent of the air in their lungs; humans, by comparison, replace just 10 percent.
Manatees can swim up to 20 miles per hour in short bursts, but they usually only swim about three to five miles per hour.
They have no natural enemies and it is believed they can live 60 years or more. Most human-related manatee fatalities occur from collisions with boats or being crushed or drowned in canal locks and flood control structures. Other human related causes are ingestion of fish hooks, litter, monofilament line and entangled in crab trap lines.
In the United States loss of habitat is the most serious threat they face.
The reproductive rate for manatees is low as they are not sexually mature until they are about five years old. Gestation period is about a year and it is believed that one calf is born only every two to five years. The young nurse for one to two years, during which time a calf remains dependent on its mother.
Manatees in the United States are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal. They are also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. Violations of these federal or state laws can be met with civil or criminal convictions associated with monetary fines and/or imprisonment. In 2012, a woman was arrested in Florida for riding a manatee.
Manatees have 2,000 thick, whisker-like hairs called vibrissae on their faces, and 3,000 on their bodies that help the manatee sense and explore the world around it. They have a smooth brain that is the smallest brain of all mammals in relation to its body mass.
Despite their small brain, they aren’t stupid. According to a 2006 article in The New York Times by a neuroscientist at the University of Florida at Gainesville, manatees are “as adept at experimental tasks as dolphins, though they are slower-moving and, having no taste for fish, more difficult to motivate.”
Manatees are nearsighted and can see in blue, green, and gray, but not red, or blue-green combinations. Their skin is half an inch thick.
Are they good eating?
As late as the 1960s they were hunted in the Caribbean. They were hunted by 3-4 men with a harpoon,a heavy wooden club and a large sharp knife. The details about the actual hunt and catch aren’t pretty and need not be described here.
People said that the meat was as good as, if not better than beef or pork. The meat on their back resembles beef and the meat on their belly resembles pork.
It was fried with just a little salt and pepper. It was also often cooked in vinegar and onions like a steak or a big chunk was seasoned and smoked or it could be baked. You could make manatee meatloaf or stew. It could also be fixed like the little pieces of pepper steak mixed with rice that you see in Chinese restaurants. Sounds versatile!