Manatees (Trichecus manatus latirostris) are large, gentle mammals that would be the bugbear of any dietitian. Lazy and sedentary, during the cold winter months their main interest is staying warm and feeding, followed by taking numerous naps.
In the summer months, manatees travel freely around the Sunshine State of Florida’s rivers and coastal waters. Sightings in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are relatively common, while they can also be seen, on rare occasions, as far west as Texas and as far north as Virginia.
Manatees are mammals and therefore warm-blooded, but their metabolic rate is exceptionally low. Although they are large, they do not have much of an insulating layer. This makes them sensitive to cold, so they must seek warm water during winter. A system of warm-water refuges, including natural springs, power-plant outflows and passive thermal basins provide shelters. In winter, manatees find a home in the many natural springs along the western coast of Florida, but they are not left alone.
Humans were (and still are) also attracted by the abundant delights of the Sunshine State, and a massive period of development began last century. Homes were built and hotels erected. More people meant more boats and, remarkably, manatees are not the easiest animals to spot when they’re in murky water. As mammals, they need to constantly return to the water’s surface to breathe. Once they are close to the surface, they are vulnerable to boat strikes. Many manatees bear the scars of propeller blades and outboard engine injuries.
A simple series of measures was introduced to keep the animals safer, and they had some respite. Nowadays, the population of Florida’s manatees is over 8000, and for the first time in 50 years, they are no longer considered an endangered animal. As Florida’s human population grows, saving room for manatees will require a strong continuous commitment by Florida’s residents and visitors to protect existing habitats and reduce the number of injuries or deaths caused by watercraft collisions.
Places to go for easy manatee encounters are along the Crystal River Preserve State Park and the Homosassa River. In Kings Bay, there are Federal Manatee Sanctuaries where it is forbidden to enter, but at the borders of these, there are strictly regulated areas where it is possible to stay still on the surface (with floaters or in kayaks) and admire groups of them gathered together. They often wake up and swim out of the sanctuary zones, sometimes swimming just below you if you have the foresight not to move in the water and remain calm on the surface.
Florida has another icon: pink flamingos. Like manatees, they were once were hunted to extinction. They are now celebrated by a massive floor-to-ceiling sculpture at Tampa International Airport. It is made of resin and fiberglass, showing a flamingo as it gently dips its head beneath the surface of the water - a sculpture that Sabrina did not hesitate to admire up close while waiting for our return flight.
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Franco and Sabrina
13th March 2023