Manatees aren’t the mermaids of legend, but they may soon be just as rare.

I saw it as I got off the ferry.  A shadow, a few ripples, a gray snout just above the water.  It was just a glimpse, barely visible from the dock on Cumberland Island.  But it was my first sight of a manatee — one of the most odd and beautiful mammals in the ocean.

Manatees are also known as sea cows, and the name fits them well.  They are huge, gentle creatures, weighing between 800 and 1200 pounds, on average.  They spend most of their time either sleeping or grazing underwater, consuming up to 15 percent of their body weight in vegetation daily.

Manatees live in the shallow, marshy coastal areas in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, the Amazon Basin, and West Africa.  West Indian manatees, which inhabit the Gulf and the Caribbean, winter near Florida.  In warmer months, they can be found along the East Coast and as far west as Texas.

Because manatees have few natural enemies, they can live 60 years or more; however, they are in serious trouble due to human activity.  For example, a leading cause of death among manatees is motor boat strikes.  This may seem surprising since, like dolphins, manatees are intelligent animals capable of complex mental tasks.  But they also hear on a relatively high frequency and are confused by the low-frequency sounds of many motor boats.  This problem, combined with manatees’ slow-moving and curious nature, leads to numerous collisions with boat propellors.  Manatees that survive these accidents are left with severe injuries.

Manatees are also hurt by red tides, in which algae “bloom,” or spread suddenly and consume all the oxygen in an area, while releasing a toxic byproduct that affects nearby animals.  Algae blooms are considered natural events, but they can be caused or worsened by human pollution, such as nutrient runoff from farms (see “Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico”).

For many years, hunting decimated manatee populations — their relatives, the dugongs, went extinct more than a century ago.  West Indian manatees are now protected in the United States by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

State-level programs are also dedicated to manatee conservation.  The British were the first to declare Florida a manatee sanctuary, back in the 1700s.  More recently, the Florida Manatee Recovery Plan outlined ways to restore manatee numbers.  Save the Manatee Club was founded by Jimmy Buffet and Bob Graham to get the public involved in manatee conservation.  Sea World of Florida also plays a role; it has been successful with its rescue and rehabilitation programs.

Manatees are faced with a long road to recovery.  But with each person who learns and cares about manatees’ future, their chances of survival become better.

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