Swimming With Manatees
The West Indian manatee, which inhabits the Caribbean and the eastern coast of the Americas from Virginia to Brazil, is no small creature; each can weigh upwards of 3,000 pounds and stretch 13 feet. There are two other species of manatee: West African manatees, found on the west coast of Africa, and Amazonian manatees, which inhabit the Amazon Basin.
But all of them are in trouble. The manatees' seemingly prolific presence in the Florida waters, particularly in the winter months, is misleading. A January 2001 census counted fewer than 3,300 Florida manatees. But they have some help: Florida manatees are shielded by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which prohibit harassing, hunting, capturing, or killing them. In addition, the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978 established Florida as a safe haven for manatees, and places like Citrus County do their best to protect what has become a valued tourism resource.
Signs along the county's rivers warn "Manatee Zone: Slow Speed," and it's not uncommon to hear a captain call to a passing vessel, "Manatee! Straight ahead! Slow down!" Nonetheless, manatees, which surface every three to five minutes to breathe, often find themselves in a losing battle with a boat propeller.
In 2000, 78 manatees were killed by watercraft in Florida. Those that survive an encounter bear wide, white scars along their backs and nicks in their tails. A few manatees that have been injured too severely to care for themselves now reside in Citrus County's Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, a 180-acre refuge where visitors can watch manatees navigate a burbling freshwater spring without getting wet themselves, thanks to the Fishbowl Underwater Observatory.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication