I SLID QUIETLY INTO THE WATER from the platform at the back of the dive-boat. The 22° water made me shiver as it made its way down the neck of my wetsuit. The water was murky after a recent heavy rainstorm.
I hovered for a moment looking around me, then swam gently away from the boat. With only a metre or two of visibility, and remembering the briefing, I moved very slowly and as quietly as possible.
A sudden nudge from behind had my heart racing as I span round. There, right up in my face, was a large snuffling nose full of whiskers, and a munching mouth with weed hanging from it.
Finning back slightly, I took in my first view of a stocky, strangely shaped body roughly twice my size.
As I moved away the creature followed, extending paddle-like fins. I didn’t feel threatened at all; in fact I was enthralled as I stopped moving and allowed it to come close and hug me, snuffling into my hair, which must have looked like blonde seaweed waving around in the water.
I was snorkelling with my daughter Camilla in Crystal River, a part of Florida to which manatees are known to escape the cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico during the winter months, keeping warm in the hot springs that flow into the river.
Florida manatees are a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, and were on the Endangered list from the early 1970s, when there were only a few hundred left. After huge conservation efforts the population has now increased to more than 6000, with their status recently downgraded to Threatened.
A manatee munches algae off a line – it’s vital to check under boats before moving off whenever possible.
Around the Crystal River area, which is on the Gulf Coast 80 miles north of Tampa, signs warn people to take care when boat-handling because of the presence of manatees. The area is very shallow, and manatees need to surface to breathe. In the murk it can be very difficult to see them, despite their size.
Unfortunately, many of the mammals have scars from boat propellers. I even saw some with mutilated or missing flippers.
Manatees are herbivores and feed on both saltwater and freshwater algae and aquatic plants, needing to consume 10-15% of their body weight daily.
They are often seen eating the algae that builds up on the hulls of boats or on mooring-lines, which might also be a factor in why so many are scarred. As careful as people might be with their boats, if a manatee is hidden beneath the hull there is little they can do about it.
Adult manatees average around 3.5m in length and weigh 500kg, but can grow to 4.5m and up to 1500kg.
At birth, babies measure around 1.2m and weigh 300kg. Female manatees gestate for 13 months before giving birth in the spring or summer. As mammals, babies suckle on their mothers, but can start eating algae from only a couple of weeks old.
Manatees are very slow swimmers and need to breathe every 3-5 minutes, although they can go without breathing for up to 20 minutes while sleeping.
I looked around and saw that Camilla had been joined by a 1.5m baby manatee that was snuffling against her hand. It was obviously the calf of the large female that had been paying so much attention to my hair, because she lost interest in me and joined Camilla and the baby, rubbing herself up against Camilla’s hand and almost asking to be scratched, while making gentle chirping noises.
When socialising or threatened, manatees can be quite vocal. Babies can vocalise from birth.
Manatees often have algae growing on their bodies, especially their backs, where their sparse hair is less dense.
Their skin, like that of elephants, is very thick and grey. They try to remove the algae by abrasion, so often approach snorkellers for a scratch.