The ‘Tea’ on Manatees: Why These Beloved Gentle Giants Need Our Help

One thing that my career as a wildlife videographer is teaching me: People love manatees. After almost a decade, the above “Manatee Manners” remains one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s most-watched YouTube videos. Tourists from all over the world plan their vacations specifically for manatee encounters. Volunteers spend years helping protect this threatened marine mammal. And an array of organizations, from aquariums to conservation commissions, are pitching in to help manatees.

Perhaps we can gain insight into the fascination and love for manatees by looking at the way we describe them: Sea cow, gentle giant, nurturing mothers. Like cows, manatees are herbivores, grazing on underwater vegetation, such as sea grass. Even though their nickname comes from their cow likeness, manatees are actually more closely related to the elephant, and reminiscent of their elephant cousins, manatees even have tiny nails at the end of their flippers. Historically, manatees likely contributed to mermaid legends. Sailors’ accounts of seeing mermaids on long sea voyages were more likely documenting manatee sightings.

young manatee swims next to adult, holding adult’s flipper in mouth
A Florida manatee calf sticks close to its mother in shallow water. Photo by Keith Ramos/USFWS

Personally, I can’t resist the millions of photos and videos of devoted manatee moms with their babies. However, when I watch those adorable families, I experience mixed emotions. The manatees, even the babies, have scars from boat propellers. They have so many that scientists use their specific scar patterns to identify manatees. Despite their many scars, manatees remain the gentle giants that draw people from all of the globe.

The good news is that in the past few decades we experienced successes in protecting these beloved sea mammals. As a federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the Florida manatee population went from as few as 1,267 manatees to an estimated 8,000 manatees 25 years later. Making progress this significant takes a village. The Service works with partners to do important work, such as rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing manatees back into their natural environment.

manatee lies on blue tarp out of water; people in background
Chessie waits for his release. Photo by Jennifer Koches/USFWS

With the help of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Sea World, and Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, we released a well-known manatee, Chessie, in May 2021 in North Palm Beach Florida. Rescued on three separate occasions, Chessie is quite famous. There is even a children’s book written about him and his unusual travels. This guy loves to swim north, beyond his range, where waters are too cold. To help manatees, like Chessie, researchers use GPS satellite tags, as part of a study to better understand manatee behavior, movements, and use of their environment.

baby manatee in person’s arms drinks from a bottle held by second person
Guamá, orphaned manatee takes a bottle in rehabilitation facility. Photo by Jan Paul Zegarra/USFWS

Despite all the hard work over the last several decades, manatees in 2021 face what has been called an Unusual Mortality Event (UME). Under the MMPA, an unusual mortality event is defined as “a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response.” The Service is supporting our partners in the rescue and rehabilitation of manatees impacted by the UME. The Service recently awarded more than $613,000 to seven conservation organizations and state agencies in the Southeast and Caribbean through the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program in support of manatee conservation. This means that our partners in Florida, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere in the Southeast can purchase much needed equipment and supplies, and they can rescue, rehabilitate and release more manatees. Additional funding for research and monitoring means a better understanding of what caused the unusual mortality rate and how we can best help these beloved marine mammals. It gives me hope that we can conserve and recover this iconic species, and that I won’t miss the opportunity to see those gentle manatee moms and adorable babies in the wild.

Here is a list of Prescott Grant Award Recipients and the work the funding will support:

Applicant — Project Title

  • Clearwater Marine Aquarium — Supporting the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership Through Increased Capacity for Second Stage Manatee Rehabilitation
  • Clearwater Marine Aquarium — Enhance Capability to Meet Future Post-Release Manatee Monitoring Demands
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — Enhanced Manatee Stranding Support for the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission East Central Field Laboratory
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — Enhanced Manatee Stranding Support for the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission Southeast Field Laboratory
  • Lowry Park Zoological Society of Tampa, Inc. — Replace Mobile Crane for Managing West Indian Manatees at David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center, ZooTampa at Lowry Park
  • Marine Environmental Sciences Consortium (Dauphin Island Sea Lab) — Stranding Response for Manatees in the Northern Gulf of Mexico
  • Red Caribeña de Varamientos (Caribbean Stranding Network) — Improve and expand rehabilitation facilities, sample collection and archiving, and post-release monitoring of Antillean manatees in Puerto Rico

By Nicole Vidal, South Atlantic-Gulf and Mississippi Basin Regions

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

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