“Sometimes I see me as old manatee, headin south as the waters grow colder” are the first two lines in the second stanza of Jimmy Buffet’s song “Growing Older, But Not Up.”
Many years ago, when vacationing at Bradenton Beach, Fla., I had my first encounter with a manatee. We were fishing from a pier that extended into the Gulf of Mexico, which incidentally is in “Manatee County,” when a huge shadow appeared in the water near our baited hook. It looked like a monstrous flounder. We pointed it out to a local fisherman who informed us it was a manatee, sometimes called a “sea cow.” They swim and feed in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Years later, on a return trip to Bradenton Beach, we traveled down the Gulf Coast highway and stopped off at Homosassa Springs where we visited the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. We saw the manatee up close being fed heads of cabbages. The manatee is a herbivores marine mammal.
They are slow-moving, seal-shaped animals that live in shallow saltwater, coming to the surface to breathe. When they are under water, their mouths are occupied eating. The manatee’s lungs are 2/3 the length of its body. The animals average 8-10 feet long and are dark grey, thick-skinned and almost hairless, with a broad, shovel-like tail that helps steer them through the water.
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They have only one pair of limbs — powerful front flippers that help propel them. They sometimes crawl through the water while using these flippers to push seaweed and other water plants toward their mouths where the lobed-upper lip catches the food.
The sea cow’s upper lip is divided in two parts. The halves close on weeds and water grasses like a pair of pliers. These lip flaps are covered with short, stubby bristles and, on a still night, the noise of their flapping lips and large crunching teeth can be heard 200 yards away.
They are Florida’s state marine mammal. They are a large “aquatic” relative of the elephant, and they’re grayish brown wrinkled skin is often covered with a growth of algae.
Like other grazing animals, the manatee’s play an important role in influencing the plant growth in the shallow rivers, bogs and estuaries of the Crystal River, near Homosassa Springs. Although they take up residence primarily in Florida’s coastal waters during winter, some individuals migrate as far north as the Carolinas in summer.
When appearing in our waters — the shallows of Hilton Head Island and the May River — the pot-bellied manatee can be put in harm’s way if offered food and water from an eager tourist wanting to film their “Disney” moment.
SCDNR’s veterinarian Al Segars says such actions alter their behavior, putting them at risk of being hit and killed by a boat as they linger around populated marinas for more feeding opportunities.
The two areas in the state where manatees are fed or watered the most are Hilton Head Island and Charleston. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, feeding and watering manatees is punishable by fines of up to $100,000 or jail time.
Segars has seen the results of these behavioral alterations. It’s his job to retrieve the dead manatee in the area.
“I’m the guy who has to pull them from the water, so it’s personal to me. Don’t interact or feed them. Observe and enjoy them from a distance,” he said.
Another threat is debris in the waterway such as discarded fishing line and hooks, plastic six-pack holders and plastic bags, which have been banned in Beaufort County since Nov. 1.
Ingestion of this litter has caused manatee injury and death.
Organized in 1981 by Buffet and Florida Gov. Bob Graham, the “Save the Manatee Club”, a 501 nonprofit members organization, is dedicated to the conservation of manatee. Its website is www.savethemanatee.org.
Conservative groups and various classes at school can adopt a manatee and support conservation and education effort. The $20 adoption fee goes directly to support these efforts.
You can also purchase a “4ocean” bracelet at $20. The club receives 10 percent of the net profits. A pound of trash will be removed from the ocean for each bracelet sold.