Large mammals roam coastal waters, but fear not!
By John Felsher
“I saw it roll in the water and didn’t know what it was!” exclaimed the agitated caller. “It came up right next to my boat and was almost as big. It slapped the water a few times. We were thinking of everything from a large alligator to a dinosaur, but I know it wasn’t an alligator.”
The very excited caller described the nearly 14-foot-long animal as “looking something like a giant beaver” with a large flat tail. It probably weighed more than a ton, but it wasn’t a dinosaur or sea monster prowling coastal waters, not even a dinosaur’s relative, an alligator. The caller spotted a manatee, also called a sea cow.
Despite their impressive size and “dino-like” appearance in the water, these large, rotund vegetarians do not attack people.
“Manatees are herbivores,” says Elizabeth Hieb, manager of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab Manatee Sighting Network. “The average adult can eat about 100 pounds of plants per day. They are large animals, but typically not aggressive.”
Manatees can exceed 13 feet in length and weigh more than 2,500 pounds, about as much as some cars. Unlike a walrus or sea lion, manatees never leave the water. According to legend, centuries ago, some sailors even described these plump animals as “mermaids” – probably after an extended period at sea and numerous trips to the grog barrel.
“Not many people think about manatees coming to Alabama, but this is their historic range,” Hieb says. “Manatees are not just straying into Alabama waters. The same animals are coming here year after year. We’ve seen evidence of mating herds in Alabama waters and animals actually raising calves.”
Recently, the U.S. Department of the Interior dropped the status of West Indian manatees from “endangered” to “threatened,” but the animals remain federally protected. The population of Florida manatees, the subspecies that visits Alabama, grew from a few hundred 40 years ago to more than 6,600 today, says Jim Kurth of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. About 6,300 Antillean manatees, another subspecies, exist in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central America and northern South America.
“Many manatees live in and migrate through the northern Gulf of Mexico,” says Dr. Ruth H. Carmichael, a senior marine scientist with the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. “Until recently, however, little was known about this species outside of Florida.”
To begin to learn more about where and when manatees reside in Alabama waters, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab established the Manatee Sighting Network in 2007.
Despite their blubbery appearance, manatees do not like water colder than 70 degrees. Like ducks, many manatees migrate northward in the spring (though much more slowly) and head south to warmer Florida waters before winter. Most manatees that visit Alabama migrate up from the Crystal River or Tampa areas.
“The warmer the water, the more likely people will see manatees in Alabama waters,” Hieb says. “Usually, they show up in Alabama in late March and depart by early November. The peak for manatee sightings here is July and August.”
Researchers at Dauphin Island Sea Lab rely upon people out fishing or boating to report manatees they see. They also tagged 11 of them and now track their movements to study them.
In Alabama waters, boaters would most likely see manatees in the Dog River area or other parts of western Mobile Bay, the Intracoastal Waterway or Perdido Pass. However, some regularly visit the weedy bays at the southern end of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
“The Dauphin Island Sea Lab Manatee Sighting Network is the first formal manatee sighting network of its kind using publicly reported sightings combined with targeted research efforts,” Hieb says. “Since its inception, the network has recorded more than 2,000 manatee sightings from Alabama west through Texas. The network also operates the first manatee tagging program in Alabama using satellite GPS telemetry technology. We’ve identified at least 30 individuals that come to the north-central Gulf Coast regularly, but we might have up to 100 manatees that come to Alabama. They’ve been seen as far north as the Claiborne Dam on the Alabama River near Monroeville.”
With no natural predators, a manatee can live more than 60 years. Unfortunately, boats hit many of these slow-moving creatures. Scientists identify individual animals by their unique prop scars. Boaters should watch for manatees in coastal areas. A boater can much more easily avoid a manatee than a manatee can dodge a speeding boat.
“Boats and boat propellers can be dangerous to manatees,” Hieb says. “Their white scars from boat propellers are like fingerprints with no two exactly alike. Boat with caution on our local waterways and give manatees space. The best rule of thumb is to stay at least 100 feet away from them.”
To report seeing a manatee or a collision with one, call the hotline at 1-866-493-5803, 24 hours a day. For more information, see manatee.disl.org or visit the network’s Facebook page to keep up with the latest sightings.
John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who writes from Semmes, Ala. Contact him through his website at www.JohnNFelsher.com