September 7 is International Manatee Day and is observed in Mexico where the species has been protected since 1921. A legend tells that manatees were once mischievous children who fell into the water and were transformed into aquatic mammals.
Manatees or Mermaids
The European sailors on the first expeditions to the Caribbean in the 16th century brought back tales of fabulously wealthy island kingdoms, birds of paradise, flying fish and… mermaids. The search for the sirens was on; however modern-day scientists conclude that what the homesick sailors probably saw were not beautiful maidens luring them down into the depths with eerie songs but the manatee, a large aquatic mammal also known as the sea cow.
The West Indian manatee belongs to the Sirenidae family, a reference to the Greek Sirens, the first clue to their mythical mermaid origins. Distantly related to the elephant, manatees are placid, aquatic plant-eating mammals that inhabit the mangrove channels, brackish lagoons, estuaries and areas of shallow, calm warm sea water in Florida, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, the Amazon and West Africa. A similar species called the dugong is found in Indo-Pacific waters, especially along the Australian shoreline. One member of the family, the huge Steller’s sea cow, which lived in the cold waters of the northern Pacific, was hunted to extinction. Sadly, both manatees and dugongs are endangered species. By far the most important factor behind their decline is boat collisions, which cause deaths and horrific injuries. Other dangers are entanglement in fishing nets, habitat loss, hunting, pollution, oil spills and lethal algae blooms called red tides. The creation of reserves such as the Chetumal Bay-Río Hondo Manatee Sanctuary in Quintana Roo, Mexico, which is inhabited by a population of 100-120 manatees, and Rocky Point in neighboring Belize gives them some protection but more action is needed.
Manatees grow to a length of 13 feet (4 meters) and weigh between 800 to 1,200 lb (363 – 544 kg) when fully grown. They graze on turtle and manatee grass, algae, mangrove leaves and water hyacinth at a depth of around ten feet (3 meters), using their prehensile upper lip to forage and sometimes using their flippers to put food in their mouths.
Manatees spend half their day sleeping in the water and come up for air regularly, spending up to 20 minutes below the surface before they need to take a breather. They can sometimes be spotted on the surface lazily flipping their paddle-like tails as they glide through the water and play with their calves or when they gather around food sources and the mouths of fresh water springs in the sea during migrations. They need water temperatures of 60˚F and above to survive and will move to warmer waters during the winter, often congregating near the discharge channels of Florida power stations.
Scientists have discovered that manatees do not seem to pick up the frequency emitted by approaching boats, particularly large vessels, hence their vulnerability to boat strikes.
The pre-Hispanic cultures of Mesoamerica and the Caribbean Basin such as the Maya and the Taino had no romantic illusions about the manatee. They hunted them for meat and the eyewitness accounts of early European explorers such as Christopher Columbus also report that they sometimes trapped the creatures and kept them in sea pens. The name “manati” is said to come from the Taino word for breast. Every part of the manatee carcass had a use, from the flesh and hide to the fat and the bones. The Maya made flutes and rasps from manatee bones, carved them to make jewelry and royal scepters and even canoes.
An Italian expedition exploring cenotes near the island of Holbox in the mid 1990s found evidence of much earlier and larger animals than those hunted by the ancient Maya when they recovered the fossilized bone of a huge prehistoric manatee in a cave.
So how could European mariners have mistaken the manatee for mermaids? For starters, their wrinkled grey hides are covered with patches of hair, barnacles and seaweed. They give birth to a single calf, which they nurse for up to two years. Twins are uncommon and reports of adult females adopting a stray or orphaned calf are even rarer. Youngsters suckle from their mother’s teat, which is located under the flippers and the parent-infant relationship is very affectionate. Mothers touch their calves, often rising to the surface with them in an upright position, and communicate with them using a language of moans, squeals and wails. Add the thick mists and the silence of the mangroves, the fertile imagination of seafarers who had been away from home for too long, and perhaps the tangled locks of seaweed, broad paddle-like tails (the dugong tail is fluked like that of a whale) and the strange sound of a manatee calling to its calf could have metamorphosed into something all the more seductive.
Manatee calf with his mother
Where to see Manatees in the Maya World
Manatees still inhabit the lagoons, bays and estuaries along the Gulf Coast in the states of Tabasco, Campeche and Yucatan and are also found in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Bacalar Lagoon, Chetumal Bay and the Rio Hondo in southern Quintana Roo. Occasional sightings of manatee have also been reported in the Riviera Maya at Xpu-Ha, Yalku and Tankah and biologists believe that they migrate along the coast during the year, moving to different grazing grounds.
If you would like to see these gentle creatures up close, Xcaret and Xel-Ha Parks are both home to manatees that have been rescued and nursed back to health after being injured by boat collisions and pollution. At Dolphin Discoveryin Puerto Aventuras you can also swim with the manatees. Trips are available through Thomas More Travel.