Manatees Essay, Research Paper
Thesis: Manatee does not have any natural predators in their environment, but humans
are the unnatural predator that causes manatees to be endangered. Declining population
is alarming and we need to do something to stop the decline.
I. Introduction: My experience with a manatee at Sea World
II. Columbus’s discovery
A. Thought manatees were mermaids
III. History of the manatees
A. Facts about manatees
B. Declining population
IV. What is happening to the manatees?
A. Causes of deaths among manatees
V. What has been done and what we can do to protect the manatees
VI. Manatees are our guinea pigs
It was my first encounter with the mysterious West Indian manatee at Sea World
in San Diego. When I got the manatee’s attention by lightly tapping on the glass, he, like
a bloated blimp, floated over to the glass to make eye contact. Thick glass separated me
from this creature that I was seeing for the first time, but the gentle stare that penetrated
the glass from the other side made the glass almost inexistent. His pink eyes were tiny
compared to size of his colossal body, but they revealed a sense of gentleness about the
creature. His approach was gradual, but he seemed sweet and genuine. He looked like a
huge seal with a flat face and a body that reminded me of a punching bag, both tough.
When the manatee was glass distance away from me, the surface of the skin became
visible, and I felt like I was looking at an elephant that had no ears and was able to swim.
The resemblance in the skin was incredible, both animals having rough, leathery gray
skin. The mimicry was a definite work of evolution. The bonding with my new friend
did not last long, three minutes at the most, because I was not as important to him as his
lunch. A chunk of sea weed was dropped into the tank from above, and the manatee did
not hesitate to jolt toward it. He seemed to view the food as a lonesome traveler would
view a water source in the middle of the dessert, sacred. After finishing lunch, the
graceful manatee proceeded to pick a spot in the corner of the tank and lazily continued
A manatee is not a well known animal, in fact, many of us probably never heard
of such a creature. The first encounter with the manatee is believed to have occurred
between the manatee and Christopher Columbus. When traveling in 1493, Columbus
sited in the New World waters three creatures that he believed were mermaids. But in
fact, “they were not the wondrous bare-breasted, fish tailed temptations of every ancient
mariner’s dream. They were manatees.”(Fichtner). Columbus made an entry in his
journal regarding his encounter with the ‘mermaids’ that stated “They were not as
beautiful as they are painted, since in some ways they have a face like a man.”(Fichtner).
It’s difficult for me to comprehend how a 1200 pound creature could be mistaken for a
mystical mermaid, and presumably a person today would not come to that conclusion
after making the same observations as Columbus did, but it’s very likely that we would
not know what creature was in front of us.
It is believed that Protosiren, which is an ancestor of the manatee, emerged about
50 million years ago, and today the product of Protosirens, the manatee still exist
(Fichetner). Manatees are not fish, but marine animals (U.S.). A West Indian manatee
looks like a very large walrus with a body that is full in the middle and narrows to a
paddle shaped tail. It’s about ten feet long on average, and approximately 1200 lbs., but
can grow up to 3500 pounds. Unlike many other animals, female manatees are generally
larger than males (Sea World). These massive animals have agile forelimbs that have
three to four toe nails on each, which they use to swim in the shallow water that they
reside in. Manatees have very sensitive skin that reacts to touch by changing the its shape
or by contracting. The peculiar lips of the manatees aid in movement as well as food
consumption (Bragg). Manatees reach their breeding maturity between three and ten
years of age and have an approximate gestation period of thirteen months. According to
Donna Carey, a manatee researcher, West Indian manatees spend most of their days
feeding along the water bottoms. She remarks “These herbavoric creatures, meaning that
they eat plants, usually eat ten percent of their body weight daily.”(Carey). An educator
at Sea World consents with Donna’s information about the feeding habits of manatees
and also provides me with the actual menu for manatees residing at Sea World in San
Diego. “The West Indian manatees here at Sea World dine on a couple of baskets of
monkey chow, eight cases of lettuce, five trays of hydroponically grown grasses,
bananas, apples, cabbages and vitamins.”(Chris). How appetizing! These puzzling
creatures spend most of their lives moving between freshwater , brackish, and saltwater
environments, but the West Indian Manatees mostly reside in Crystal River waters of
Southern Florida (U.S.).
A manatee is one of the most harmless and helpless marine mammals that live
today. And yet, it is on our endangered species list. There are only about 1900 West
Indian manatees left in the world today, and that number is rapidly decreasing (Sea
World). According to a brochure published by Sea World, there have been one hundred
and twenty manatee deaths in 1987 and two hundred and eighteen in 1990 (Sea World).
These numbers seem to be tragic considering that there are only 1900 of these creatures
left. I figured out that if the death rates remain constant, the manatee population will be
wiped out in less then nine years.
So what is happening to all these manatees one might ask. The answer is sad: we
humans are the primary killers of the manatee race. Historically, manatees were hunted
for flesh, bones, and hide by Native Americans and later by the early colonists. Manatee
fat was used for lamp oil, bones were used for medicinal purposes, and hide for leather
(U.S.). This kind of hunting, is believed to have begun the initial decline of the manatee
population, but today the decline is due to different factors. The main cause of manatee
deaths is due to speeding boats. Speeding boats run over many manatees that are
submerged just below the surface , killing them by either impact with the boat itself, or
by slicing into their backs with propellers (U.S.) If a manatee is not fatally sliced by the
propeller of the boat, it may die from internal injuries, or survive with deep scars to
remind them of the nearly mortal accident with a reckless human. Boats account for
about 26% of deaths among the manatees. It was documented in the US Fish and Wildlife
Service’s catalog that power boats outnumber manatees 600 to one (Fichtner). This
disturbing fact makes me wonder why we don’t have any laws that would help us control
the numbers of boats in areas with large manatee populations. Humans also put manatees
in danger when closing flood gates and canal locks. Numerous manatees have been
crushed by these closing flood gates (U.S.). As if the boats weren’t a powerful enough
murder weapon against these innocent animals, our fisherman are negligent with their
fishing nets and lines which cause many of the manatees to die. They may swallow these
fishing nets which will get tangled up in the tracts of the animal, or a fishing line may
become tightly wound around a flipper and create serious infections or even death (U.S.).
Most of these causes are more or less accidental even though preventable, but what
disgusts me the most is when fishermen, skin divers, and boaters purposely harass these
animals and purposely interrupt feeding and mating activities of the manatees (U.S.).
How sadistic can a person get? I was always taught to never do things that I would not
want others to do to me, and in this case I highly doubt that these harassers would want
that type of behavior imposed on them.
Efforts to protect the West Indian manatees have been underway since 1893, when
the lawmakers in Florida passed the state’s first manatee-conservation law in order to
protect these delicate creatures. Today, manatees are protected by the Florida Manatee
Sanctuary Act of 1978, which labels Florida as a manatee haven and permits the
establishment and enforcements of boat-speed regulations in manatee habitats (Fichtner).
Manatees are also protected by federal laws in Florida that prohibit hunting, capturing,
killing, or harassing these animals. These laws include the Marine Mammal Protection
Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Bertram). The official authorities
are not the only ones that can do something to protect these fragile mermaid. Save the
Manatee Club was formed by ordinary people like us in order to conserve the manatees.
Started by a single person in 1981, this non-profit organization is now 20,000 members
It seems like there has been numerous actions taken by the authorities to protect
this diminishing species, but why are there still so many manatees dying each year? It
took me a while to come up with two hypotheses to help me answer that question, and I
think that I am on the right track. When doing research about what has been done to
protect manatees I came across a number of laws that have been passed, but not in one
piece of information have I found anything on what kind of punishments are enforced on
people who break these laws. It’s easy to put things on paper and say that they are laws,
but it’s a totally different to actually impose these laws. My other hypothesis is that
people act in a boomerang effect. That is when “people react to laws by behaving in the
opposite direction from that desired by those trying to socially influence them.”(Akert).
It’s difficult not to ask a question like “Why save the manatees?” when one is
faced with the problem of manatee endangerment. At first glance it seems that we do not
have any benefits from the manatees, and honestly, we don’t have any direct benefits
from these creatures, but the underlying gains are amazing. A manatee is like a guinea
pig. It tests out the water for us humans. If a manatee cannot survive in water, you and I
can’t either. The natural seagrass beds upon which the manatees feed are being engulfed
by pollution from herbicides, and surface run off (Fitchner). Through out Florida,
swimmers and fishermen have taken over what was once the manatees’ native territory.
Manatee mortality is going up and so is human mortality on the waterways of Florida
(Fitchtner). The guinea pigs are not surviving, and we may not either. It is time that we
took responsibility for our actions, and began respecting other living creatures; not
necessarily because we benefit from them, but just because they make our planet diverse.
I found a quote by B. Dioum which I think very well summarizes our mentality,
“For in the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we
understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”(Sea World). So the next time
you are out on a boat and going above the speed limit, not only are you threatening your
life, but also lives of manatees: defenseless, natural-born losers that cannot fight back.
Akert, M. Robinson, Elliot Aronson, and Timothy D. Wilson. Social Psychology. 3rd ed.
New York: Longman, 1998.
Bertram, Colin. In Search of Mermaids. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1963.
Bragg, Michael T. “Manatees Facts and Information.” 2 Mar. 2000.
Carey, Donna. Telephone interview. 8 Mar. 2000.
Chris. Telephone interview. 8 Mar. 2000.
Fichtner, Margaria. “Lost at Sea?” Life Science Dec.1989: pp. 1G+. SIRS, 1990. Art. 25.
Sea World Education Department Publication. “Manatees.”1992.
U.S. Department of the Interior. West Indian Manatee, 1995.