Most iconic of all of Florida’s water creatures is the West Indian manatee. These gentle “sea cows” feast on the mangrove leaves, algae, and turtle grass that are common throughout Florida’s waterways. The state’s warm waters are the manatees’ preferred place for wintering and mating. Crystal River, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, is a fantastic place to see manatees in the winter, as it has one of the greatest concentrations of the creatures. The rivers of South Florida are also home to a large number of manatees.

A West Indian manatee in the water.

“My blubber keeps me warm in the water.” Photo © Matthew Howard/123rf

Wildlife officials have gone to great lengths to cap speed limits on large stretches of water in the hopes of giving manatees an opportunity to avoid colliding with the boats.As they like to inhabit the same waters that Florida’s many boaters enjoy, manatees face their single biggest threat from the propeller blades of fast-moving boats. Injuries sustained by contact with boats have resulted in thousands of manatees dying a most gruesome death. Even manatees that aren’t struck by boat propellers have been threatened by the deleterious effects of fishing gear (nets, hooks, etc.) that they swallow while feeding on sea grasses and algae.

Federal law prohibits harming a manatee (they are currently listed as “vulnerable to extinction”), which has resulted in something of an uneasy standoff on Florida’s waterways. Boaters feel that they have every right to roam the rivers at whatever speed they feel is appropriate and safe, while wildlife officials have gone to great lengths to cap speed limits on large stretches of water in the hopes of giving manatees an opportunity to avoid colliding with the boats.

While the majority of boaters are respectful of the regulations and empathetic to the manatees’ plight, a recent government study that found the sea cows’ position was improving led many to note that such improvement was grounds for relaxing the regulations.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Florida Road Trip.