Manatees: The Gentle Giants of the Sea

Though massive in size, manatees are both peaceful and graceful.

West Indian Manatee
Mother and baby manatee. (Photo: James R.D. Scott/Getty Images).

Manatees, also known as sea cows, are the gentle giants of the sea. These placid creatures move at a languid pace alone or in small groups.They cruise through their home in shallow coastal or river waters in search of their herbacious diet. 

Manatees measure up to 13 feet long and can weigh as much as 1,300 pounds. But don't let their massive bulk foolk you. They are amazingly graceful swimmers that can reach speeds of 15 miles an hours in short bursts in the water.

Manatees have a large, prehensile, flexible upper lip and paddle-like flippers. They use both of these appendeges to gather food and to communicate.

A manatee's head and face is wrinkled, with coarse hair or whiskers on its snout. They have small, widely spaced eyes with eyelids that close in a circular manner. The name manatí comes from the Taíno language, a pre-Columbian people of the Caribbean, meaning "breast."

Want to learn more about these beautiful creatures? Here is everything you need to know about the magnificient manatee.

Types of Manatee

Manatees are members of the family Trichechidae and they comprise three of the fours species in the order Sirenia. Their fellow Sirenian is the eastern hemisphere's duogong. Their closest relatives are the elephants and hyraxes.

There are actually three species of manatee in the world, characterized by where they live. The West Indian manatees range along the east coast of North America from Florida to Brazil, the Amazonian manatee lives in the Amazon River, and the West African manatee inhabits the west coast and rivers of Africa.

What Do Manatee's Eat?

Like all mammals, manatee calves drink their mothers' milk. But adult manatees are voracious and herbaceous grazers. They eat plants and lots of them - water grasses, weeds, and algae are their favorites. A single adult manatee can eat a tenth of its own massive weight every day.

Fun Facts About The Manatee

  • Manatee calves are born underwater and get help from their mothers immediately after birth so that they can get to the surface for their first breath of air. Within an hour, baby manatees can swim on their own.

  • Manatee teeth are continuously replaced throughout their lives. New teeth develop in the back of the jaw replacing older teeth that fall out farther forward. The manatee has only six teeth in its mouth at any given time. This unique habit is called polyphyodonty and is rare among mammals, found only in the kangaroo and the elephant. 

  • Unlike other mammals, mammals only have six cervical vertebrae. Other mammals (except for certain species of sloth,) have seven. 

  • Manatees spend about half of their days sleeping underwater, surfacing regularly for air at intervals of less than 20 minutes.

Threats to the Manatee

Manatees are large, slow-moving animals that frequent coastal waters and rivers. The manatee's large size, slow movements, and peaceful nature make them particularly vulnerable to poachers seeking their hides, oil, and bones. Their curiosity also means that they are frequently hit and harmed by boat propellers and often become entangled in fishing nets.

Today, manatees are endangered species that are protected by state and federal laws. 

How Can You Help The Manatee?

If you live in Florida, all of the money from the state's "Save The Manatee," plate goes directly toward manatee protection and education programs. You can also check with the Save the Manatee Club or the Adopt-A-Manatee program to find out how you can help protect these gentle giants.