First the rules. Manatees are protected by several state and federal laws, so it is strictly forbidden to harass them in any way. No chasing, poking, scaring, riding, or in any way going cowboy with the sea cows is allowed. It is not a roundup, pardner.
Our boat captain explained that it was best to try to stay still and let them come to you. And they did. A lot. They are huge, adults often reach over one thousand pounds and babies nearly half that, and they swam right up to us. Several times we had no idea one was around until it was right next to us. They seemed to come out of nowhere.
Manatees are slow moving, very gentle, and actually seem to enjoy interacting with humans, so we mostly floated silently and let them move around us. We even got to touch a couple of them, which is allowed as long as it is done softly and with an open hand. Their skin is a little bristly, with short, coarse hairs, and often covered with a layer of algae.
Sadly, as we had noticed in our land-based manatee viewings, almost every one of these congenial creatures bears scars from collisions with watercraft. They nearly all have tell-tale parallel lines across their backs from boat's propellers. In fact they have no natural predators, humans are really their only threat, mainly from impact with boats, but also loss of habitat and pollution.
The good news is that a great deal of effort is being made to protect them and their numbers seem to have stabilized, with at least five thousand spending the past few winters in Florida.
See our video "How to Spot a Manatee" (from land)
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
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