Manatees: Should You Touch Them in the Wild?
You’ve probably seen the “no touching” signs for manatees and wondered why that would be after hearing about places like Crystal Springs, Florida, where people go swimming with manatees. I’ve also heard stories: manatees turning around to get their bellies scratched. People say 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 cut to the chase first and say that if you touch them, you put them at greater risk of injury and/or death. You also put the entire species at risk of disappearing 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 “wildness” out of a wild creature, it loses one of its best defense mechanisms: the instinct to avoid certain situations and flee when necessary. For the protection of a manatee, it is very important that it stays wild and retains its natural wild instinct.
Manatees are an endangered species. This means that there are so few left in the world that they are barely hanging by a thread. In fact, not only are their population numbers low, they are also declining by at least 20% each generation! Losing just one manatee to a senseless premature human death is a REALLY big deal right now. It is essential that we do everything we can to protect them. Otherwise, we could lose this incredible creature forever in 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 breed every 3-5 years. The female remains pregnant for more than a year, and the manatee calves remain with their mother for about 2 years. This means that manatees have a slow growing population under the best of circumstances. They cannot be quickly replaced like other mammals such as rodents and rabbits which breed much more frequently. If you remove a single manatee, it can have a huge impact on the population right now.
Boating accidents are one of the main ways manatees are killed and seriously injured today, and boat traffic continues to increase throughout their range. Manatees can stay underwater for 15 to 20 minutes. However, like all other marine mammals, they have to come to the surface to breathe. If there is a boat in the area when they do this, they may be hit by the hull or cut off by the propeller. To make matters worse, manatees are myopic creatures: they see better up close than from a distance. If a ship is traveling fast, they may not even see it coming before it’s too late. Manatees that have become accustomed to people are more likely to associate the sound of a boat engine with people and will be more inclined to move to areas where there is heavy boat traffic. The number of boat-related accidents involving manatees has skyrocketed in the last decade.
Another problem with manatees being too comfortable with people is that not all people are nice and it only takes one bad apple to kill or insult a manatee. If manatees get used to people scratching their bellies, they can expect ALL humans to be this friendly. Unfortunately, we know that not all human beings are so friendly. In fact, there are some who would actually derive some sort of sadistic pleasure from harming a manatee. It is much safer for the manatee if it does not lose its instinct to avoid people.
It is especially important not to touch or interact with a mother manatee when she is with her cub. It takes two years for the mother to teach her cub everything she needs to know to survive on her own. Interacting with the mother and/or pup at this critical stage can result in the two becoming separated. If this happens, the cub may not be ready to fend for himself and he could very well die, not to mention the negative effect it will have on the Lonely Mother.
Most people who are forced to touch a manatee do so because they love animals. They want to touch it because they are drawn to such a fascinating and wonderfully strange creature. They don’t want to hurt the manatee. They just don’t realize that touching the manatee could actually harm it or put it at greater risk of dying. It is mainly for those people for whom I am writing this article.
Please understand that for the manatee’s sake, the best way to observe it is to keep a respectable distance. There is also a HUGE advantage to you in looking at them this way, a great advantage that you may not have realized before. When you watch a wild animal from a respectable distance, you can see how the animal naturally behaves! As fun as it can be to touch a manatee, it’s even more fun to watch 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 distance but without disturbing them. This may be one of the richest and most memorable experiences you will ever have.
Therefore, if you see a manatee while swimming or diving, try to keep a respectable distance and simply observe how it behaves naturally. The less you interact with him, the more acclimated he will be around you and the more natural he will behave. You will be richly rewarded for showing this respect to the animal, I assure you! If you are with a group, make sure you don’t completely surround the manatee, even from a distance, as this will make him feel trapped.
If you are driving a boat and see a manatee, be sure to slow down to avoid any chance of a collision. If you’re taking a guided tour and someone else is driving the boat, if he doesn’t slow down, signal the manatee and politely ask him to slow down. Sometimes when manatees surface for air, most of their body remains underwater with only their snout sticking out. In these cases, it can be difficult to see them and the boat driver may not have seen them. This way, even if you’re 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 are not extremely careful in how we behave with them. Please pass this information on to anyone you know who cares about manatees and other endangered wildlife. You can help save them just by getting the right information.