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Sanibel-Captiva & Fort Myers Beach Area Features

Marine Mammals

  By: Kristie Seaman Anders & Jackie Kenney

Florida's Beloved Sealife

The surrounding waters and the life that exists within them captivate the minds of visitors to Sanibel and Captiva Islands. However, two water-dwelling mammals and one amphibian continually steal hearts as visitors they spot them in the wild.


Looking out over the glistening water, one may catch a glimpse of a rolling gray fin slicing through the waves. Continued watching may result in the sighting of one of the islands’ favorite creatures, the bottle-nosed dolphin as it surfaces for air. Containing no bones, the dorsal or back fin keeps the dolphin moving in a straight line. Each fin is uniquely shaped, allowing scientists to distinguish individuals.

Dolphins can be distinguished from porpoises by their elongated snout, or rostrum, and cone-shaped teeth. As marine animals, they require a tremendous amount of food in order to maintain their body temperature and metabolism. It is estimated that the adult dolphin eats about 40 pounds of fish each day. The local bottle-nosed dolphin population has some unique characteristics in commparison to the same species found in the open ocean.  This population is smaller in body size growing to an average length of 8-10 feet and weighing 800-1,000 pounds.Generallly they are all gray with darker highlights and lighter undersides. Their long, narrow, torpedo shape makes them ideally suited for life in the water. A dolphin propels itself with powerful up and down strokes of its tail, and its flippers help it to steer. Dolphins have excellent eyesight, and although their ears are barely visible, they have good hearing.

They are very social animals, they travel in groups of two to six called pods, visiting other groups in the community. Bonds between dolphins can last for years. In the waters of the Gulf and Bay, dolphins easily find sufficient food. Both on the shore or out on the water, be sure to keep a lookout. Chances are you will see a pod of bottle-nosed dolphin.


Florida’s other beloved marine mammal is the West Indian manatee. Also known as the sea cow, they 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 congregate around springs and water warmed by power plants, such as the water near Manatee Park on State Road 80, which offers the best success at spotting manatees in early mornings. When the waters are warmer, boaters and paddlers in Tarpon Bay along Captiva’s Roosevelt Channel, and even close to busy marinas, spot manatees.

Bones almost as dense as ivory and thick skin account for much of the mammal’s half-to-one-ton weight. The huge tail supplies the main source of propulsion, and small front flippers act like rudders. The flippers are also used to dig up submerged vegetation. Adult manatees can consume over a hundred pounds of vegetation each day.

Newborn calves can weigh 60 pounds and must hold their breath while nursing. They stay with their mothers for up to two years.

The manatee has been listed as an endangered species since 1967, with only about 3,000 remaining. Floridians have protected this friendly giant as far back as 1892 when it became illegal to kill one. Loss of their precious food source due to changes in water quality, increased boat traffic and other human activity have caused the population decline.

Loggerhead Sea Turtles

Since the late 1970s this species of turtle (as well as other sea-dwelling turtles such as the leatherback and green sea turtle) has been on the endangered species list. Found in oceans around the world excluding the Arctic, these reptiles can grow to be three feet in length and weigh over 200 pounds. Because they’re often caught in fishing nets and have had their breeding grounds destroyed, their numbers continue to dwindle despite conservation efforts. A surprising fact about loggerhead turtles is that they can swim up to 15 miles per hour along an ocean current.

Female loggerhead sea turtles come onto land to dig their nests in the sand and lay their eggs. Afterwards, they return to sea leaving their young to fend for themselves after they hatch. These nests are protected and it’s illegal to disturb them.

The protection of both manatees and dolphins requires your cooperation. Maintain a safe distance and respect their habitats. Remember, their future is in our hands.

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