Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Swimming with the manatees

Today we swam with the manatees with American Pro Diving Center in Dunnellon, Florida, a company with a reputation for promoting a strong environmental ethic. Manatees are an endangered and protected animal. They are mammals and prefer vegetation, often eating up to 15% of their body weight daily. They average 10 feet long and 1,000 pounds, which includes very little fat. An adult manatee spends as much as 8 hours a day eating and the remainder of the day resting or traveling. The are docile, slow, easy-going animals, with nicknames such as "gentle giant" and "sea cow," and they winter in coastal areas in Florida and southern Georgia. They especially prefer the slow-moving rivers and shallow coves and bays where there are warm springs (72 degree water) and lush sea grass beds, and our guide found a number of them in a spring in Kings Bay this morning. This is one of only a few places that permit you to get into the water with them and pet them as we did, wearing wet suits, snorkels, and face masks...

The have adorable faces...

...and sociable traits which leads them to approach you. Many even like your touch on their backs ( thick and wrinkled skin often with growths of algae on them). Several also rolled over and presented their stomachs for petting, and that skin is softer and finer. Forelimb flippers act like arms that allow them to maneuver, to "walk" in shallow water, and to scoop food to their flexible, grasping lips, while a powerful, flat tail propels their massive bodies across the water.

Since they are so trusting and friendly, they are easy targets for those out to do harm to them and also susceptible to propellers of motor craft. Many manatees have numerous scars from prop blades and death rates are high from speeding boats. Therefore, manatee zones are well marked and idle speeds enforced rigorously.

Able to hold their breath for up to 15 minutes while resting, manatees have huge lungs that exchange 98% of their contents in one breath. Their nostrils, located on top of their faces for easy breathing, have tight-fitting flaps that keep the water out when they're submerged. Gushes of strong exhalation at the water surface reveal the manatees' presence.

We swam with them for 75 minutes. The air temperature at 8am was only around 50 degrees, but the water in springs in 72 degrees and the dry suits kept us warm. This activity is one of the highlights of this trip!

1 comment:

Goldenrod said...

Now, that's something I would like to do! All the while I was reading this, I was thinking of Hiassen's book. :)