Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Marvelous Manatees

Seventy degrees is a delightful temperature.

This is especially true if it's December and back in the Midwest, where you're from, the furnaces are grinding away.

In coastal Florida, where manatees as well as winter residents hang out at this time of year, Gulf waters can cool below seventy degrees from time to time.  

A drop in temperature, whether air temperature or water temperature, is always noticed by those it affects. People pull on sweaters when it cools down but cold snaps put manatees on the move. They travel to warmer waters. 

This often is a spring, a place where warm water comes up out of the ground to make a river. The manatees stay  through the cold weather. It's critical they have access to warm water.

They seldom venture into waters under 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Death can occur if they're unable to reach a warm haven.

Crystal River is a well known viewing site for manatees. There are other places which we learned about from a visit to Manatee Park in Ft. Myers.  

A regional park within Lee County, Manatee Park is a great chance to see manatees close up. The viewing platform puts you directly above the manatees.  

A number of manatees were floating, resting and swimming in the warm discharge water of the adjacent Florida Light and Power Plant the day we were there. 

This spot becomes their winter home, a guaranteed comfort zone when a passing cool front lowers the thermometer on Gulf waters.

Getting to see these large, slow-moving, almost mythical aquatic mammals are occasions to consider yourself lucky. That's how we felt on that visit.

Being dummies about manatees, which is where the real education begins - knowing you know nothing about a subject - we wondered if manatees live in the salt waters of the Gulf of Mexico. 

We could see manatees gravitate to springs and warm water discharge areas like at Ft. Myers. We weren't as sure if they had the same ability to thrive in highly saline waters.

Park signboards and further research gave us the information and more that we sought.

Manatees can live in salt water and fresh water as well as brackish estuaries which are a mix of saline and fresh water. 

Some references mention fresh water is a requirement for manatees who periodically need to find a freshwater source. 

At a glance manatees would seem made for withstanding the transient chill of Florida winters. Perhaps its their low metabolism. They plain out aren't equipped to cope with the cold. It stresses them.

They have a self-protective instinct for the mild same as the seasonal sojourners of baseball caps and golf shirt garb who begin to migrate southward simultaneously.

The Florida manatees are a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. They're Florida's state marine mammal. 

They're properly called the Florida manatee as well as the other correct name for them, West Indian manatee or simply manatee. 

As a group their range includes southeast United States (coastal Virginia to Florida), the Caribbean and Brazil. They live in tropical and subtropical waters. 

With days warming in the spring the Florida manatees make their way to the ocean or the Gulf of Mexico to eat sea grasses. 

They've been sighted in Louisiana and Texas during the summer and along the Atlantic seaboard as far north as Rhode Island and Massachusetts. 

At the manatee park we were captivated by a mama manatee with her little one swimming alongside. Babies are called calves and it reminded me of earlier trips to Florida.

On those vacations our kids were young. They strained for just one glimpse of the big floating shapes. So keen was their desire to see a manatee they practically leaned out the car windows at every bridge or canal we crossed.

We knew manatees then as sea cows. Manatee and sea cow were very interchangeable names. Perhaps  the travel literature we picked up used the term. Sea cow seems to be less favored now.

The coziness between mama and calf was later called to mind when we read that baby manatees ride on their mothers' backs when they get tired.

This endearing bit of information didn't parley into an actual demonstration of this handy means of travel the day at the manatee park. We have to accept it as fact.  

It's easy to believe it's so. This is, after all, what mamas do when their little ones grow weary.

Before the visit we pictured manatees as quiet creatures. Their wide expressionless faces give them a dreamy look, which might come to all of us if we floated submerged below the surface much of our while

It came as a surprise, therefore, that manatees can be embarrassingly noisy. They have a raucous snort when they come up. The snort is through their air holes when they lift their heads out of the water.

The sound is of someone stertorously clearing their throat or blowing their nose. 

The sound startles you. It assails the ears. It disturbs the peaceful silence which is the mesmerizing swirl of their  swimming forms, with an occasional thrash of fins thrown in.

The snort generates the same reaction as a social gaffe in polite circles. I don't think of manatees as altogether quiet since then. 

We learned manatees are related to elephants. Size, wrinkled skin and herbaceous diets are things they share. The nails on manatee flippers are like elephant nails too. 

In the manner of a mother with a somewhat unbeautiful child you have to love manatees and elephants for themselves. The enchantment, for those who see them as cute, doesn't begin with their pulchritudinous charms.

Adult manatees grow to about ten feet long. A few make twelve feet. Manatees typically weigh between 800 and 1200 pounds although 3500-pound manatees are recorded.

That's pretty good heft considering they forage on what we humans, if it was our diet, would describe as lettuce and other greens.

The plant-eating manatees consume the equivalent of nearly a tenth of their body weight every day.

Their daily intake converts into fat which makes manatees heavy and solid and helps them float in the water. In this they're unlike monkeys which we visited at the zoo next. 

Monkeys are muscular and have very little fat. Luckily they're arboreal. They're at home in the trees where fat for water flotation is not mandatory.

Manatees have a flat broad rounded tail which acts as a paddle and helps propel them. The front flippers are for steering and digging up plants to eat.

They have small eyes and the muddy water they frequently inhabit doesn't let them see far. They rely on a keen sense of smell and they also hear very well. 

Many manatees have scarred backs. The scars testify to their encounters with the boating public. An unfortunate number of manatees are hit every year by inboard motors and propellers.

Boaters in coastal Florida are cautioned with signs of the presence of manatees to prevent and reduce death or injury from boat props.

Manatees are on the endangered list throughout their range. They have a high mortality rate especially in association with human activity.

Other mortality factors with human association include chemical pollution, loss of habitat and entanglement in fishing line. Cold weather and red tides, along with low manatee reproductive rates, also play a part.

School kids are often the first and most vocal in understanding and expressing the beauty of manatees and their importance to the environment and the world.

Perhaps it's the young who see innocence best and see it in particular in this gentle aquatic mammal.

The swimming, resting, floating actions of the manatees catch the beauty of the greater world and tell of ancient rhythms of life that still bear heeding. 

The marvelous manatees compose an important story. They aren't something that's had its day and is outdated and replaceable by modernity. 

The modern world, if we're to get it right, must learn to be in partnership with all living creatures and the earth.

It is to our good to do so and be so. It may assure that one day we're not the manatees facing a tenuous hold on ever more fragile space.

Ro Giencke - January 23, 2013


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