You have probably seen the “do not touch” signs for manatees and wondered why this would be so after hearing about places like Crystal Springs, Florida where people go to swim with the manatees. I’ve heard the stories too: manatees rolling over on their backs to have their bellies scratched. People saying how much the manatees seem to like it.
So what is the problem? If they like it, why shouldn’t you touch manatees in the wild?
Before I explain why in detail, let me just cut to the bottom line first and say that if you do touch them, you put them at higher risk for getting injured and/or killed. You also put the whole species at risk of dying out forever.
As manatees interact with people, they lose their natural fear of people. They also lose their natural fear of things associated with people that could hurt them like boats. In other words, if you take the “wild” out of a wild creature, it loses one of its best defense mechanisms: the instinct to avoid certain situations and run away when necessary. For a manatee’s protection, it is very important that it remain wild and retain its natural wild instinct.
Manatees are an endangered species. This means there are so few left in the world, they are barely hanging on by a thread. In fact, not only are their population numbers low, they are also declining at least 20% every generation! Losing just one manatee to a senseless pre-mature human caused death is a REALLY big deal at this point. It is critical that we do everything we can to protect them. Otherwise, we could lose this amazing creature forever within the next 100 years. It is a sad thought to think that your Great-Grandchildren could live in a world where there are no manatees in the wild.
Another important issue to consider is that manatees only reproduce every 3-5 years. The female stays pregnant for more than a year and manatee pups stay with their Mother for about 2 years. This means that manatees have a slow growing population under the very best of circumstances. They can’t quickly replace themselves like other mammals like rodents and rabbits who reproduce far more frequently. If you take out a single manatee, it can have a huge impact on the population at this point.
Boating accidents are one of the primary ways manatees get killed and seriously injured today — and boat traffic continues to increase across their entire range. Manatees can stay under water for 15 – 20 minutes. However, like all other marine mammals, they have to come to the surface to breath. If there is a boat in the area when they do, they can get hit by the hull or cut up by the propeller. To make matters worse, manatees are short-sighted creatures — they see better up close than far away. If a boat is traveling fast, they may not even see it coming before it is too late. Manatees that have become accustomed to people are more likely to associate the sound of a boat motor with people and they will be more inclined to move into areas where there is high boat traffic. The number of boat related accidents with manatees has skyrocketed over the last decade.
Another issue with manatees getting too comfortable with people is that not all people are nice and it only takes one bad apple to kill or injure a manatee. If manatees become accustomed to getting their bellies scratched by people, they may expect ALL human beings to be so friendly. Unfortunately, we know that not all human beings are this friendly. In fact, there are some who would actually get some sort of sadistic pleasure out of harming a manatee. It is much safer for the manatee if they don’t lose their instinct to avoid people.
It is especially important not to touch or even interact with a manatee Mother when she is with her pup. It takes two years for the Mother to teach her pup all they need to know to survive on their own. Interacting with the Mother and/or pup at this critical stage can result in the two of them getting separated. If this happens, the pup may not be ready to fend for itself and it could very well die, not to mention the negative effect it will have on the forlorn Mother.
Most people who are compelled to touch a manatee are this way because they love animals. They want to touch it because they are drawn to such a fascinating and wonderfully strange creature. They mean the manatee no harm. They just don’t realize that touching the manatee could actually harm it or put it at higher risk for being killed. It is mostly for those people who I am writing this article for.
Please understand that for the manatee’s sake, the best way to observe it is to keep a respectable distance. There is also a BIG advantage to you doing observing them in this way — a big advantage that you may not have realized before. When you observe a wild animal from a respectable distance, you get to see how the animal behaves naturally! As fun as it may be to touch a manatee, it is even funner to actually get to see what it does in the wild. If you go out with an ethical eco-tour operator, they can show you how to see animals at a relatively close range but without disturbing them. This can be one of the richest most memorable experiences you’ll ever have.
So, if you see a manatee while swimming or snorkeling, try to keep a respectable distance and just observe how it behaves naturally. The less you interact with it, the more acclimated it will be around you and the more natural it will behave. You will be richly rewarded for showing the animal this respect, I assure you! If you are with a group, be sure not to completely surround the manatee, even at a distance, as this will make them feel trapped.
If you are driving a boat and spot a manatee, be sure to slow way down to avoid any chance of a collision. If you are taking a guided excursion and someone else is driving the boat, if they don’t slow down, point out the manatee to them and ask them nicely to slow down. Sometimes when manatees surface for air, most of their body stays below water and just their snout sticks out. In these cases, they can be tricky to see and the driver of the boat may have missed it. In this way, even if you are not driving the boat, you can really help by keeping your eyes peeled for them.
Remember that manatees are a true treasure in this world that could disappear if we aren’t extremely careful about how we behave around them. Please pass this information on to anyone you know who cares about manatees and other endangered wild animals. You can help save them just by getting the right information out there.