What is a Manatee?
Where are they found, what do they eat, and how fast do they swim? Watch our video to learn about West Indian manatees. Then click the blue boxes below to discover information about their behavior, lifespan, legal protection, and more!
More Information About 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. The manatee’s closest relatives are the elephant and the hyrax (a small, gopher-sized mammal). Manatees are believed to have evolved from a wading, plant-eating animal. 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 feet long and weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds.
Manatees can be found in shallow, slow-moving rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals, and coastal areas — particularly where seagrass beds or freshwater vegetation flourish. Manatees are a migratory species. Within the United States, they are concentrated in Florida in the winter. In summer months, they can be found as far west as Texas and as far north as Massachusetts, but summer sightings in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are more common. West Indian manatees can also be found in the coastal and inland waterways of Central America and along the northern coast of South America, although distribution in these areas may be discontinuous.
Manatees are gentle and slow-moving animals. Most of their time is spent eating, resting, and traveling. Manatee are mostly herbivorous, however small fish and invertebrates can sometimes be ingested along with a manatee’s normal vegetation diet. They eat aquatic plants and can consume floating, emergent, and submerged vegetation from freshwater, brackish, and saltwater environments. 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 manatees are using a great deal 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. Manatees can swim up to 20 miles per hour in short bursts, but they usually only swim about three to five miles per hour.
West Indian manatees have no natural enemies, and it is believed they can live 60 years or more. As with all wild animal populations, a certain percentage of manatee mortality is attributed to natural causes of death such as cold stress, gastrointestinal disease, pneumonia, and other diseases. A high number of additional fatalities are from human-related causes. Most human-related manatee fatalities occur from collisions with watercraft. Other causes of human-related manatee mortality include being crushed and/or drowned in canal locks and flood control structures; ingestion of fish hooks, litter, and monofilament line; and entanglement in crab trap lines. Ultimately, loss of habitat is the most serious threat facing manatees in the United States today. There is a minimum population count of 5,733 manatees as of January/February 2019, according to the most recent synoptic survey.
The reproductive rate for manatees is low. Manatees are not sexually mature until they are about five years old. It is believed that one calf is born every two to five years, and twins are rare. The gestation period is about a year. Mothers nurse their young for one to two years, during which time a calf remains dependent on its mother.
West Indian 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. West Indian manatees 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.
The Florida Manatee Recovery Plan was developed as a result of the Endangered Species Act and is coordinated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS).
In October of 1989, Florida’s Governor and Cabinet directed the state’s wildlife agency to work with 13 “key” manatee counties in Florida to reduce injuries and deaths. These 13 counties were: Brevard, Broward, Citrus, Collier, Dade, Duval, Indian River, Lee, Martin, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Sarasota, and Volusia. Over the years, these 13 county governments have worked with the state to develop site-specific boat speed zones to reduce the likelihood of watercraft collisions and to implement comprehensive manatee protection plans (MPP) for each county. Other conservation measures deemed important to saving manatees include: research addressing biology, mortality, population and distribution, behavior, and habitat of manatees; implementation of management plans; posting of regulatory speed signs and levying of fines for excess speeds in designated areas; manatee education and public awareness programs; and public acquisition of critical habitat and creation of sanctuaries.
Save the Manatee Club’s mission is to protect manatees and their aquatic habitat for future generations. To achieve this mission, we work to: increase public awareness and education; sponsor manatee research, rescue, rehabilitation, and release efforts; and advocate for strong protection measures, such as boat speed zones and sanctuaries. SMC also supports research and conservation efforts for other sirenian species around the world.
If you spot a sick, injured, or orphaned manatee, or a manatee being harassed, you should immediately report it. Please also report dead manatees or a manatee wearing a “tag” or tracking device.
How to Get Help for Manatees
Maryland, North Carolina, or any eastern state north of Florida:
Click the following link to get information on how to report manatees to your local wildlife officials.
Alabama and Mississippi:
Call Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s Manatee Sighting Network at 1-866-493-5803.
Call the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at 1-800-442-2511.
Call the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-800-9-MAMMAL (800-962-6625).
Please give dispatchers the exact location of the manatee.
If the manatee appears injured, please call right away. If injuries are not obvious, but you still suspect the manatee may be injured, try to determine the number of times the manatee surfaces to breathe during a five minute period before calling. Since manatees can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes at a time, frequent surfacing could be indicative of an injury. Please call:
- If you see a manatee with a pink or red wound or with deep cuts. This means the wound is fresh.
- If you see a manatee with grayish-white or white wounds, this likely means the wound has healed. But the manatee can still have internal injuries, so continue to observe the animal for any of the other characteristics listed here.
- If the manatee is tilting to one side, unable to submerge, seems to have trouble breathing, or is acting strangely.
- If you observe a manatee calf by itself with no adults around for an extended period of time. Manatee calves may remain dependent on their mothers for up to two years. If the mother dies before the calf is weaned, there is a strong likelihood the calf will not survive alone.
- If you see anyone harassing a manatee.
- If you see boaters speeding in a protected area.
- If you see a manatee who has become entangled in monofilament line, crabtrap lines, or other debris. Do not attempt to remove debris by yourself. Debris may be embedded underneath the skin and only a trained veterinarian can adequately assess and repair the damage.
- If you see a dead manatee. By doing a necropsy, scientists can sometimes determine the cause of death and better understand the dangers to manatees.
- If you see a manatee tagged with a radio or satellite transmitter. Sightings of tagged manatees help provide researchers with information that can be used to protect manatees and their habitat. However, do not attempt to remove the transmitter. It is designed to come off if it becomes entangled, so the animal won’t be trapped.