The Gentlemen of the Sea

In 1943, Christopher Columbus was certain he laid eyes on three mermaids rising out of the sea. They were not so stunning for a mermaid, he wondered [2,5]. What did he see then? Pseudo-mermaids?

Actually, they are manatees, and they are stellar creatures. They are also called sea cows because of their huge appetite for seagrass, weeds and algae. They are the ocean’s biggest herbivores [2,4], growing up to 13 feet long [2,6], depending on the species [6]. In a day, they consume about 10 to 15% of their body weight [2]. That translates to 100 to 150 pounds of plant material – a big appetite to compensate for low calorie diet. With every gulp of food comes the ingestion of sand particles, wearing down their molars. Good for them they can grow new teeth their entire lives [1,5,6].

Did you know? Manatee originated from the Carab term manti, referring to “breast or udder” [1,3,5]. Their closest land relatives are elephants and hyrax [2,5]. And yes, dugongs are their cousins. Long before overhunting in 1768, there used to be a manatee called Steller’s cow [2], which was reported to be as heavy as a school bus [4]. While there is a single species of dugong (Dugong dugon), there are three of manatees: the West Indian (Trichechus inunguis), West African (Trichechus senegalensis), and Amazonian (Trichechus manatus) [2,6]. Except for the Amazonian manatee, the other two species have vestigial toenails, indicating life on land [4].

Manatees are slow and genuinely gentle creatures [1,3]. They take their time cruising at three to five miles per hour – barrel rolling, travelling, mostly eating – usually for five minutes, even up to 20 minutes. They have a good stash of oxygen, thanks to their “hemi-diaphragms”, allowing them to resurface and replenish 90 percent of the air in their lungs [2,4,6]. They are the most gentle of creatures (just look at that pose), even to a sacrificial hand to their mouth [1].

Although a manatee has the smallest brain in relation to its body mass, it may actually be smart [2,4,5,6], with dexterity for experimental tasks but just harder to motivate [2]. Unlike other mammals, it only has six neck vertebrae [3,6]. Thus, it can’t move its neck sideways; it has to maneuver its entire body to do so [3]. Despite this, it can sense its environment well, having been endowed with 2000 whisker-like hairs called vibrissae on face and another 3000 on its body [2].

A manatee gestates for 12 months, and the single calf stays with its mother for a year or two [5]. You may see a calf behind the mother’s flipper. Well, the ‘armpit’ is where the young gets its nourishment from [3].

Unlike whales, they don’t have a layer of blubber to keep them warm. Instead, they utilize power plant outflows to survive during winter. Before, warm water springs provide natural refuge for these creatures. Today, 60% of manatees depend on these artificial heat source, worrying scientists that manatees may die accidentally in cold waters when power plants stop operating [1].

Sea cows don’t have natural predators. However, humans are the biggest threat for these gentle, defenseless creatures [1,5].  In particular, most death of manatees are due to boat collisions [4,5,6]. With a million vessels roaming in a supposed sanctuary in Florida, these creatures are surely in trouble [4]. As if these aren’t challenging enough, humans have displaced their food and habitat, the precious seagrass beds [1,5]. Toxic red tide also exacerbates the problem [4].

Photo by Peppermint Narwhal
Photo by Peppermint Narwhal

Today, there are more than 6000 West Indian manatees [6]. Definitely, more efforts must be done to ensure their continuous recovery.

No to fast rudders! Take it slow as there might be gentle manatees enjoying their swim.

To know more about manatees, visit SeaLifeBase.

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[1] Morris, A. (2014, November 26). 8 things you didn’t know about manatees. PBS Newshour. Retrieved from

[2] McCarthy (2015, February 3). 12 things you might have not known about manatees. Mental Floss. Retrieved from

[3] Robertson, L. (2014, May 27). 18 facts to help you appreciate manatees. BuzzFeed. Retrieved from

[4] Shapiro, A. (2015, November 11). What you didn’t know about manatees in honor of manatee awareness month. Oceana. Retrieved from

[5] Gaines, J. (2016, January 23). You’re probably already a manatee fan. If not, here are 22 reasons to become one. Upworthy. Retrieved from

[6] Tornio, S. (2016, April 23). 15 things you didn’t know about manatees. Mother Nature Network. Retrieved from


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