We’ve found a reason to embrace the cooler Florida temps we’re experiencing. Manatees. More specifically, the Florida manatee, a sub-species of the West Indian manatee.
The local weatherman stated the air temperature for the next 10 or more days would range from the high 50’s to low 70’s with night temps dropping even lower. The ocean temp was currently at 67 degrees. I knew that meant the manatees would be heading into the rivers & springs looking for warmer water. Manatees are mammals, they cannot tolerate water temps below 68 degrees for long periods of time without becoming distressed. They don’t have the layers of blubber that some aquatic mammals have to protect against hypothermia setting in.
We’d heard there was a hydroelectric plant nearby, so with a little research we discovered Manatee Park just a few miles southeast of us. This 17 acre Regional Park opened in 1996 & is operated by a cooperative effort of partners & sponsors. However the land the park sits on is owned by Florida Power & Light who built the canal that discharges into the Orange River. At one time a steam plant, water was drawn in from the Caloosahatchee River to cool the turbines preventing them from overheating. The warmed water was then discharged into the canal. Eventually the manatees swimming up the Orange River located the much warmer waters of the canal, passed the word along, & continuously return year after year.
Interesting note to this is that the power plant no longer operates by steam but via more efficient natural gas. This eliminates the necessity of the canal BUT since the Florida manatee is an endangered species & since they have long sought refuge in this canal, Florida Power & Light agreed to maintain the canal & monitor its water temperature.
While Don & I were observing & photographing the manatees, we were approached by the engaging Dr. Wallace Campbell, a retired school principal, a writer of childrens books, & a volunteer here at the manatee sanctuary. We were hesitant at first but Wallace’s persistence won us over & we are so delighted he did. We learned so much from him about the manatee. His method of teaching us made learning fun. I would venture a guess that the teachers & students where Wallace was once employed adored him.
We learned that manatees can live 50-60 years or more. That a calf weighs between 60-80 lbs. at birth & is approximately 4-4 1/2′ long but grows quickly during its first 2 years of life. During those first years, the female cow continues to nurse the calf by teats located at the base of each flipper. Why are they located in such an odd place? It is because the calf, needing to take in air more frequently can nurse while engulfed in his mothers flipper. She can then surface with her young in tow to help it to take in air. A cow will also adopt an abandoned or orphaned calf & raise it as her own. It is from its mother that a calf learns its survival skills. Manatees are good mothers. Eventually the calf reaches maturity, he will average out at about 1,200 lbs. & 10′ in length. To date, the largest manatee weighed 3,600 lbs. & measured 13′.
The park management has installed an underwater microphone allowing us up top to listen to the manatees communicate with each other via little squeaks & clicking sounds. It was intriguing being able to visually see the herd & at the same time listen to them “talking” one to the other. Now if we only had a translator.
We learned that manatees can survive in fresh, salt & brackish waters. They are herbivores & must consume 10% of their body weight each day. While feeding upon shoreline vegetation a manatee can ingest sand & gravel particles that will eventually wear down their teeth. Unlike other mammals, a manatee’s teeth continue to replace themselves. The process is called marching molars. The teeth are perpetually advancing forward on the manatees mandible. We even learned that because they are herbivores they can also get gas so if you’re ever observing manatees & you suddenly witness an eruption of bubbles in the water, you may safely assume that Yes, the manatee did indeed fart.
Wallace also told us about an occurrence called the Startle Effect. Look it up on You Tube. The Manatee Startle Effect. No one is certain how or why it occurs but if you have a herd of manatees in an area & one of them is startled by something, perhaps a pinch from a crab, thus causing the manatee to react, there will be an instantaneous ripple effect within the entire herd. That’s correct, a group of manatee is called a herd. The male is a bull. The female a cow, & the offspring are calves. Ergo the term Sea Cow.
Although these creatures are quite graceful in the water, Wallace, Don & I agreed, it must have been one land-sick drunken sailor to have ever mistaken a manatee for a mermaid.
Here’s lookin’ at you kid…………………….