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Sanibel & Captiva Area Features

West Indian Manatees

  By: Kristie Seaman Anders

West Indian manatees, also known as sea cows, graze on the sea grasses that surround the islands. Despite their size, they are extremely sensitive to cold water.  During the warmer months, these gentle creatures are dispersed throughout the area, equally at home in fresh or salt water. During cooler weather, they begin to congregate around springs and water warmed by power plants.

Florida Power and Light’s plant just east of Fort Myers, and near the confluence of the Orange and Caloosahatchee Rivers, has an output of warm water. Nearby, Manatee Park was established through the efforts of Lee County high school students. Sightings of manatees there are very common during times of cold weather. Located on State Road 80, not quite a mile east of I-75’s exit 25, the park offers the best success at spotting manatees in early mornings when gulf water temperatures are below 70º F.

When the waters are warmer, boaters and paddlers in Tarpon Bay, along Captiva’s Roosevelt Channel, and even close to some of the busy marinas in the area, spot manatees.

When seen from a dock, most of a person’s view is obscured by the glare of the water. The whiskered lips may be the only visible part of these half-ton to one-ton creatures. Bones, almost as dense as ivory, and thick skin account for much of the mammal’s weight.

The huge tail, about a quarter of the body’s length, supplies the main source of propulsion, and small front flippers act like rudders.  The flippers are also used to dig up the roots of submerged vegetation. Adult manatees can consume over a hundred pounds of vegetation each day.

Newborn calves can weigh 60 pounds or more. Youngsters must hold their breath while nursing and may stay with their mama for up to two years. Babies learn from their mothers traditional migration routes, location of grazing areas and warm water areas necessary during the winter months.

The manatee has been listed as an endangered species since 1967, with just over 3000 remaining. However, Floridians have protected this friendly animal as far back as 1892 when it became illegal to kill a manatee. Loss of their precious food source, reduction in sea grasses, change in the quality of their watery habitat, an increase in the number of boats and other human activity have caused a decline in their population.

The protection of the manatee requires your cooperation. No matter how tempting it may be, providing water or food to a manatee is prohibited. Remember, their future is in our hands.

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