The Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) and the Antillean manatee, which can be found throughout the Caribbean, are both subspecies of the West Indian manatee. There are two other manatee species, one in the Amazon and another along the west coast of Africa. The wide-ranging dugong of the Indian and Pacific oceans is a close relative. (With their curvaceous bodies and lithe tails, manatees and dugongs are believed to have inspired the mermaid legend.) Fossils suggest that manatees have made their home around the Sunshine State for 45 million years. The Florida manatee once ranged as far north as the Carolinas and as far west as Texas, but today it’s headline news when one strays from its home waters, as when a male turned up near Rhode Island in 1995.
Every winter, tourists flock to the town of Crystal River, Florida, about two hours north of Tampa, to view hundreds of the animals seeking refuge in the spring-fed warmth of the Crystal and Homosassa rivers. Tour companies lead divers to the beasts. Representations of the creature adorn CrystalRiver’s water tower and bus benches. The town is not alone in making money off manatees. In 2002, more than 95,000 Florida automobile owners paid $20 extra for a “Save the Manatee’’ license plate, with the proceeds earmarked for marine research.
People once killed manatees for their succulent meat. As long ago as the late 1800s, observers were predicting the animal’s imminent extinction. (Another close relative, the Steller’s sea cow, of the Bering Sea, was wiped out in the late 1700s by hunters who prized its meat and skin.) In 1893, real estate mogul Frederick Morse—one of Miami’s founding fathers—pushed a measure banning manatee hunting through the Florida Legislature. But the killing of the creature for food would continue for decades, largely due to lax or nonexistent enforcement. In the 31 years since the federal Endangered Species Act went into effect and made killing a listed animal a crime, Florida authorities are known to have prosecuted only one Manatee offender: in 1985, the captain of a commercial fishing boat found with a butchered manatee was ordered to pay a $750 fine and serve a six-month prison term.
Meanwhile, the fight to save manatees has shifted from hunting to boating. Boat hulls and keels crack manatee skulls and break their ribs. Propellers slice their hides, often with fatal consequences. From 1974 through 2002, state biologists tallied 4,673 manatee deaths, with 1,164 of those the result of encounters with boats.
In 1949, Joe Moore, an EvergladesNational Park biologist, discovered he could tell one manatee from another by studying propeller scars. Ahide’s scar pattern is nearly as distinctive as a fingerprint and today serves as the basis of manatee identification. Acollection of 100,000 photographs of about 2,000 manatees taken over three decades reposes in Gainesville, Florida. Stored in row upon row of black binders and a computer database in a couple of cramped rooms of the U.S. Geological Survey, the Manatee Individual Photo-identification System is said to be one of the most extensive portraits of a marine mammal species. Many photographs show scars acquired over many years. One documented manatee had scars from 49 previous run-ins with boats. The 50th killed the animal.