The West Indian Manatee - Trichechus manatus latirostris
By Liesel Hamilton, SC Master Naturalist
They float through the water, peacefully, serenely, occasionally sticking their noses above water to exhale loudly and spray a small amount of water and air out of their nostrils. There is a reason that manatees are nicknamed “peaceful giants.” Weighing between 440 and 1,300 pounds, these vegetarians are inquisitive, curious, and friendly creatures that happily interact with humans, making “swimming with the manatees” a popular recreational activity for people who visit the Florida freshwater springs that these mammals frequent.
The closest living relative of the manatee is the elephant and the similarities are apparent even from a quick glance. Manatees and elephants share the same tough, grey skin, and the manatee’s nose is structured very similar to a trunk, only shorter. If you look closely at a manatee’s flippers you will even see that they share the same toenail indentations as an elephant.
Manatees require warm freshwater to survive and therefore can travel during the summer through waterways, however, in the winter they flock to natural springs that produce seventy-two degree water ideal to their survival. In the winter, Florida springs are the most common place to spot West Indian Manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris) that come by the hundreds to the crystal clear Florida water to relax, feed, and breed. However, in warmer months manatees can travel as far north as Massachusetts and thus it is possible to spot them in South Carolina’s waterways, with the most frequent sightings occurring along the coast. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources is interested in recording the number of manatees that cross into South Carolina and viewers are encouraged to call and report manatees to them.
Partly due to their curious nature, manatees are endangered, their only threat—humans. Because manatees are known to come towards boats to investigate them, they are frequently struck in the process. Also, since manatees move slowly along the water surface, their grey bodies camouflaging into the water, it is easy for boaters to never see them and therefore run right over them. Boats so often strike manatees that the white scars left behind on their bodies by propellers can be used to identify them. This, coupled with the low reproductive rate of manatees, has landed these gentle giants on the endangered species list. Areas that are home to manatees are subject to slow speed limits and specific areas are roped off completely as wildlife sanctuaries.
Because of their lovable nature, there are many groups devoted to saving Manatees. When driving through places like Crystal River, Florida, one location of the natural springs that manatees love, it is clear that the manatee is king—paintings of manatees decorate the sides of buildings, giant cutouts of manatees greet people from the side of the road, and of course, manatee mailboxes are abundant. These people are proud to live near manatees and are avid to protect these endangered creatures, giving them a fighting chance after all.