West Indian Manatee: The Everglades’ Resident Gentle Giant

ManateeThe West Indian manatee is certainly a local favorite, these gentle creatures having affectionately earned themselves the nickname of “sea cow.” The West Indian manatee can be further classified into two subgroups, the Florida Manatee and the Caribbean Manatee, both of which are currently on the endangered species list.

The West Indian manatee is a mammal which has completely adapted to living underwater, and like other manatee species, has no hind limbs. The average adult West Indian manatee is roughly 12 feet long and weighs around 1,300 pounds, with females tending to be larger than males. Although manatees are easily the largest animals found in the Everglades, with the largest Florida manatee on record reaching nearly 4,000 pounds, they are extremely docile creatures, very gentle and very shy.

Manatees are not territorial, and have very few, if any, natural predators. The only aquatic species large enough to take on a manatee – sharks, killer whales – very rarely share habitats with manatees, so in general, manatees have never been known to shown predator-avoidance behavior. Manatees themselves, though they occasionally feed on small fish and crustaceans, are largely a vegetarian species, with sea grass being their largest source of food.

West Indian manatees are extremely vulnerable to their environments, and many die during periods of cold weather because the thermal shock shuts down their digestive systems in temperatures below 68 degrees. Because of this, the loss of warm-water habitats poses the biggest threat to declining manatee populations, though as always, humans have their share in the responsibility as well. If you have ever seen manatees in the wild, then you may have noticed large, deep scars on their backs, the result of being hit by propellers as boats pass over them too closely and too quickly for these slow-moving creatures to avoid.

There are strong efforts today to preserve manatee populations throughout Florida, as these gentle giants have almost become a sort of mascot for the state. A variety of state, federal, and non-profit programs are already set up to protect these gentle creatures, and fortunately, numbers are on a slight rise.

To fully understand the beauty and importance of these animals, many residents and visitors head out on the water for an Everglades tour. From an airboat ride, you and your family can view manatees, alligators, crocodiles, and plenty of fish and birds, and you’ll no doubt be left with a love and appreciation for all things Everglades.