Manatee Migration

By Pura Vida Divers:

As the leaves turn gold and red, and fall’s frosty fingers weave their way across the North, a different scene indicates the imminent arrival of colder weather throughout Florida. Along coastal waterways and up inland rivers, clear blue waters ripple bright green seagrasses as herds of manatees move overhead, making their way to Florida’s freshwater springs.

Manatees’ rotund, wrinkly grey bodies and languid movement through the water give the impression of a blubbery animal, but that is not the case. Much of a manatee’s mass is made up of their stomach and intestines. Although these “sea cows” may spend up to half of their day foraging, their bodies are lean and unsuited for the chilly waters that worm their way into Florida estuaries as the weather cools.

Over the course of a day, a manatee may eat up to 10 percent of its own body weight in seagrasses, algae and water plants. This is perhaps a surprising quantity of food, as the average manatee weighs between 800 and 1,500 pounds. Even with a continuous supply of nutrition, however, manatees have little body fat and a low metabolic rate, which means their bodies can’t offset the loss of heat when water cools below 68 degrees.

The crystal-clear freshwater of Florida’s springs stay around 72 degrees year-round. When air temperatures drop low enough that Floridians consider wearing shoes instead of sandals, manatees begin their large congregations inland. During winter, water in the springs is comparatively warm, and the inflow of hundreds of bodies log-jamming the waterways helps keep groups of manatees warm.

Manatees are unique creatures in many more ways than their seasonal migration pattern, which often takes them north instead of south. Their closest living relative is the elephant, a likeness which can be seen particularly in the stubby toenails that dot their front flippers.

Manatees are one of the rare marine creatures that can tolerate saltwater, brackish water and freshwater. Unlike humans, who are born with only two sets of teeth, these marine mammals will replace their teeth throughout their lives.

Manatees breathe air, and can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes before surfacing for a breath. When they are swimming, manatees breathe more rapidly, and must surface every three to four minutes. They usually swim at a sluggish pace of about 5 mph, but can reach 15 mph in short bursts. In the aquatic world, manatees are still some of the slowest moving animals, and are particularly at risk from collisions with boats and scarring from propellers.

Luckily, manatees are federally protected. It is illegal to harass, hunt or kill manatees, which includes touching or feeding them.

Swimming amongst throngs of manatees is an experience unlike any other. Every winter, Pura Vida Divers leads an expedition of snorkelers and SCUBA divers to observe this phenomenon.

The trip is open to swimmers of all ages and experience levels and includes snorkeling sessions, afternoon SCUBA dives and exploration of some of Florida’s beautiful nature preserves.

Contact Pura Vida Divers at 561-840-8750 or info.pvd@puravidadivers.com.

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