Gentle Giants

To beat the tourist boats with their camera-waving cargo, we had to leave the dock at 5.30am. We were hoping to see and photograph a famly of manatees in their main wintering ground in Crystal River, Florida. But if we arrived after seven o'clock, we risked sharing their company with 50 or 60 other visitors, disgorged by the boats, who were intent on playing with these gentle giants.

They fascinate tourists and all visitors as they have fascinated man for centuries.Even hundreds of years ago, mariners still believed that manatees and dugongs were the mermaids of legend. Indeed, the word for their family group, Sirenians, recalls the name sirens and the mythical mermaids believed by the ancient Greeks to lure ships and sailors to their deaths. Today, though, it is the 'mermaids' themselves which are in danger and dying.

Manatees have been on the official endangered species list since 1973 and they are a particularly difficult creature to protect. One reason is their sheer and gentleness when approached. A key cause is also the animal's lifestyle.

The manatee or sea cow is found on coastal and inland waterways from Brazil in South America to Virginia in the United States. They can be found around a number of Caribbean islands, but their most common location is on the north-west coast of Florida. The Florida manatee is the largest vegetarian creature in the sea, it can weigh more than 3000 pounds (1,361 kilos) and grow to four metres. They are often mistakenly seen as a cross somewhere between a seal and a whale but, in fact, are relatives of the elephant.

Manatees have no hind limbs, just a large, flattened, paddle-like tail, and their forelimbs have evolved into flippers. You can see the five bones or 'fingernails' quite clearly on each flipper, indicating that eons ago they were used for something else.Manatees have been around for millions of years and fossil evidence indicates that there were once more than a dozen species of sea cows.

Stellar's sea cow from the Baring Sea was the largest of all the sea cows and was exterminated in 1786 by Russian hunters. There are now only four species left: the Amazon, West African and West Indian manatees, and the dugong. All have been hunted virtually to extinction for their meat, oil, skin and teeth.They are now threatened as their environment is encroached.

As the temperature of the shallow water drops along Florida's west coast in winter, these underwater 'blimps' slowly head for the warm springs inland. This annual migration is necessary for their survival. Being warm-blooded air breathers and bearing live young which suckle their mother's milk, they need the constant temperature from Florida's inland springs to sustain their body temperature, to maintain a constant food source and to allow them to breed in relative safety. The body temperature of the manatee is 97.5¡F, very close to our 98.6¡F . And they are insulated with layers of fat.

More than 1,200 manatees have been recorded in Florida and the largest concentration is found in the Crystal River area.

This mighty spring pumps out 650 million gallons of clear, warm water every day and the manatees congregate around a number of favoured outlets, to bask in the warm water, and eat the incredibly fast-growing grass and weed which is their staple diet. The cows give birth around the end of November. The newborn calf weighs around 80lbs (37 kilos) and is approximately one metre long.

The male Trichechus manatus latirostris reaches sexual maturity at about the age of six and will mate with several females. Males take no part in the rearing of the young. When the females are sexually receptive, from the age of seven onwards, they will also mate with several males. The pregnancy lasts 13 months and it is not uncommon for twins to be born.

Manatee calves are strong swimmers. Using their tail and paddle-shaped flippers, they stay close to the surface and rise every 20 seconds to breathe. As they grow older, this regular breathing rhythm will increase to over four minutes.When sleeping, this breathing rhythm slows down to 12-20 minutes and is basically a reflex action, the mammal rising automatically to take a breath, without waking. A newborn manatee can see, swim, hear and make noises. For two years the calf will accompany its mother, growing fat on her rich milk.

At Crystal River, now a national wildlife refuge, specific areas have been set aside for manatees where boats and tourists are not allowed. The reserve also has families of otters, raccoons, storks, pelicans, terrapins and many other species of animal life. Although there are specific refuges, most of the manatees you encounter are along the banks of the built-up areas and along the main boating channels. Federal law forbids the chasing or touching of manatees. But the inquisitive manatees still touch and nuzzle humans.

Sadly, most of the resident population bear scars across their backs and flippers; tourist boats'unguarded propellers and even those of the wildlife rangers who patrol the waters to protect them. A simple guard around boat props, as used by most British dive boats, would help. There is a rehabilitation and rescue centre at Ocean World in Orlando where those that recover from their injuries are nursed back to health and are eventually returned to the wild.

Most of the time they are solitary creatures, but they do retain family groupings and during the winter they congregate in large herds. The largest group we saw was of fifteen individuals of all sizes.The newborn calves are incredibly friendly and were our constant companions whenever we entered the water. Temporary herds of several hundred or more have been seen near the outlet of the nearby nuclear power station. On several occasions we saw what we thought was a manatee in distress, caught by a rope in its mouth. In fact, the manatees were using this attached mooring rope as a type of dental floss! Their teeth are replaced in a similar fashion to those of sharks: the worn ones replaced by others moving forward in conveyor-belt fashion.

The family group we found in Florida was very approachable. We took our photographs and swam gently around them. But even that meant, we felt, we were really no better than those other tourists. At least, though, we didn't try to ride on their backs, or frighten them, or prod and poke them; or all the other sickening sights we saw.

So placid and gentle are manatees that even when they are in danger or their young threatened, they do not protect themselves. Manatees are too friendly and approachable for their own good. We left them with a deep sense of sadness, knowing we could probably never snorkel with them again. I feel I could not do anything further to add to their already gross exploitation. We had witnessed enough. The gentle giants should be left in peace and I can only hope my photographs will be more than a fading record for future history lessons.

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