Manatees are large, aquatic mammals that inhabit the warm, shallow, marshy coastal areas and rivers of the Western Atlantic from Florida to Brazil. Their closest relatives on land are the elephant and the hyrax.
Manatees can be found in shallow, slow-moving rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals and coastal areas. They have large, grey bodies which taper to a flat paddle-shaped tail.
They have 2 forelimbs, called flippers. Their head and face are wrinkled with whiskers on the snout. The average adult manatee is about 3 m. (9.8 ft) long and weighs between 362-544 kg. (800-1,200 pounds) They eat aquatic plants and can consume 10-15% of their body weight daily in vegetation.
Although their whiskery face makes it hard to believe, manatees may have been the source of legends about mermaids. Their captivating human-like eyes may have led sailors to believe they were mermaids when they caught fleeting glimpses of them in the sea. Manatees spend hours grazing underwater everyday, and they can be very exciting to watch in their natural habitat.
Your chances of seeing one in the wild
The manatee has no known predators other than humans. In the past, humans hunted manatees extensively for their meat, fat, and tough hides. Powerboats are now the greatest threat to manatees. Manatees are slow, near-surface swimmers, and the number of collisions with motorboats is increasing at an alarming rate.
Residential and commercial development along rivers and waterways has also affected the manatee population. Manatees are listed as vulnerable in the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.