For the purposes of this write up, I'm just going to refer to the West Indian manatee as just a plain old "manatee". Given their nature, I don't think they'd mind.
Okay, we've all probably seen them at a zoo or an aquarium at one time or another. If not there, we've certainly seen pictures of them or maybe even caught a special or two about them on the Nature Channel or someplace similar. They're those slow-moving docile creatures that look like they actually don't mind being confined in an overgrown fish tank and seem to enjoy a life of leisure no matter what their surroundings are as long as they have food and nobody gets in their face too much.
Looks aren't everything ya know
Your average manatee is in fact a rather large mammal that for reasons of their own have adopted an aquatic lifestyle. They range in color from a grayish brown to a flat gray. Their bodies are roundish in the middle but flatten themselves out at the bottom where they have a tail shaped like a paddle. Picture a huge beaver tail. They have two flippers, one on each side and three or four nails on each of them. Their head and their face are wrinkled and they remind me of a sea going Shar-Pei with whiskers.
It's all relative
Manatees are pretty big creatures. Most range about 10 feet long and weigh in at about 1000 pounds. Their closest known relative is the elephant and something called a hyrax which turns out to be something that looks like your average rodent. Besides the ones in Florida, there is also an African version and one that calls the Amazon river it's home. There's even something called the dugong which, while not a manatee in the proper sense, sure bears an uncanny resemblance to one.
Home is where you make it
Manatees are mostly on the move and prefer the warmer climates. They tend to stay out of deeper waters and prefer shallow slow moving rivers, salt water bays or canals or estuaries. They tend to stick closer to shore and like to winter in Florida (Does that make them Jewish?) but as the summer months come along, they can be found as are far west as Alabama and as far north as Virginia.
What's it like to be a manatee?
Well, for starters, consider a very passive lifestyle. One of the reasons that they move so slow is that they have no natural predators so they probably figure "What's the rush?" It's almost like they're born into retirement and the vast majority of their time is spent eating, sleeping and travelling from one warm place to another. They are strict vegetarians and on a good day can eat up to 15% of their body weight. The prefer to spend their time underwater snacking away on whatever vegetation they can find and only come up for air every five minutes or so. While nobody knows for sure, it's thought that manatees can live for up to 60 years in the wild.
How to make more manatees
I'm thinking that as animals go and since they had no natural predators and a pretty long life span, breeding wasn't high on their list of priorities. I mean, who needs kids when you're living the high life?
Females reach sexual maturity at the age of five. Males on the other hand don't hit their stride until they hit the ripe old age of nine or ten. Even then, one calf is born in the wild only every 3 to 5 years. It takes mama manatee about 13 months to give birth and they nurse for another two years or so. After that, it's up to junior to make it on his own.
The mermaid connection
Believe it or not, sailors from the days of yore originally confused the manatee with the legend of the mermaid. As for me, if you've ever seen a manatee up close and personal, this was a sure sign that they had been at sea way too long. As for them, maybe they were getting confused with their name when it comes to the animal order. You see, part of the manatee's name come from the Greek legend of Sirenia. Her trick was to sing songs to the sailors and ships as they passed by and to lure them closer and closer to shore with the promise of passion. Unfortunately, the ships would run aground and the sailors would meet their fate at the bottom of the deep blue sea. Maybe they forgot that part of the story.
The human factor
Just like with most other creatures of the earth, it's us humans that make life more difficult for them. Since manatees prefer to stay just a few feet underwater, they are in danger of getting gashed and killed by the propellers of speed and fishing boats boats. They can also get themselves caught up in crab lines or involuntarily find themselves consuming fish hooks.
Their biggest threat though is the loss of their natural habitat. With coastal areas disappearing and natural waterways being diverted, there is getting precious little space for the approximately 2,600 manatees known to exist in the wild to roam about.