Manatee, Florida’s State Marine Mammal

April 14, 2023

PattiW_Manatees_IMG_3629 (004)

Photographer: Patti Weeks 

Summary Author: Patti Weeks 

The Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris), a subspecies of the West Indian manatee and of the order Sirenian, has existed for millions of years. This solely aquatic mammal resides in the coastal waterways of Florida’s Gulf of Mexico and its Atlantic coast. The name Sirenian comes from the Greek mermaid mythology. (Sailors of yore, and even Christopher Columbus, thought they saw mermaids, but instead their visions were probably the tube-shaped manatee.) Manatees are also nicknamed “sea cows” due to their diet of seagrasses, and perhaps because of their large girth and slow-moving pace, generally around 3-5 mph (5 to 8 km/h). They're more closely related to elephants than cows, however.

Manatees weigh an average of 1,000 lbs. (~450 kg) but lack a thick layer of insulating fat and will seek refuge in warm canals or spring-fed rivers to maintain their metabolism. I photographed this female manatee and her calf on February 13, 2023, at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a shallow spring which maintains a year-round temperature of 72ᵒ F (22ᵒ C). The photograph of these manatees and the surrounding water reveals “caustic networks,” an optical phenomenon that shows the distortion of reflecting and refracting sunlight, and appears in clear, shallow, gently moving water. The strong caustics here make the naturally smooth backs of the manatees appear cracked and crinkled. 

A keystone species, manatees play an important role in the ecological balance of Florida’s coastal regions, and although they are protected, they face several threats. According to Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council, in an August 11, 2022, press release from the Center for Biological Diversity, “Florida’s manatees are suffering historic losses because of habitat loss, pollution, and watercraft collisions.”

Red Tide” (Karenia brevis), a natural recurring algae bloom on Florida’s gulf coast, can create a toxic environment, causing illness and even death to manatees, fish and other sea life. It can also cause respiratory and other health problems in humans. Following hurricanes, leftover land runoff exacerbates the tide’s toxicity. On Florida’s east coast, the water’s toxicity from fertilizer runoff and septic tank leaks is killing seagrass, the manatees’ main food source. Efforts are being made to feed starving manatees and to promote water quality restoration.

In 2017, manatees were downgraded from endangered to threatened on the US Endangered Species list, but some experts believe they should be classified as endangered again as toxic algae blooms become worse and boating activities increase. Education on boater safety and support of rescue organizations can help safeguard the manatee’s survival.


Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Florida Coordinates: 28.80000, -82.58806

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