There’s a commotion in the canal just a stone’s throw from the entrance to Biscayne National Park. Alligators, we figure, and stop to investigate. But we’re wrong: The culprit is among Florida’s largest and most beloved residents, the manatee.
Though beloved, the federal government lists these aquatic behemoths as endangered. Scientists estimate that just two to three thousand inhabit Florida waters.
The ancestors of these “sea cows” returned to the water from land tens of millions of years ago. Among their closest living relatives: elephants. It’s no surprise, then, that adult manatees often weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Grazing grasses and mangrove leaves near shore, they sometimes eat a tenth of their body weight in a single day.
H. Max Tritt…
…a biological science technician with Biscayne National Park, tells me that boats—which collide with the slow-moving creatures and slice them with their propellers as they breathe at the water’s surface—menace the state’s dwindling manatee population.
“The more barnacles and prop scars, the older they are,” he says. “I’ve seen a juvenile so young it still had its umbilical cord attached, and already it had propeller scars and broken ribs.
“Everyone in this park has a manatee story,” Tritt declares. “They’re familial, travel in pods, and when the young mature, they do like we do—go off and start their own families. Everyone adores them. We had an injured manatee that had been through rehab released here last year, and the governor came, actually walked it down to the water line with a bunch of other strong people.”
Tritt tells us we were lucky to spy a pod of manatees in the canal. “We got a lot of rain earlier this week, so the canals have been full, and they opened the gates. Those manatees may be trapped in there until the next heavy rain, waiting for the gates to open again.”
Photos by Tim Greenleaf