On July 12, 2015, there was a confirmed manatee sighting in the coastal waters off of Ocean City. That was the first such sighting in nine years, according to experts at the National Aquarium. Manatee sightings in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay are more frequent, usually coming in at the rate of one every year.
These cuddly-looking mammals have been compared by some modern-day observers to underwater teddy bears. Others have joked about their sock-puppet faces. The biggest manatees get to be 13 feet long and 1,300 pounds. Standard size is 9-10 feet long and 1,000 pounds. Fossil experts say that their closest living relative is the elephant, with both tracing their lineage back to the same land-living ancestor.
Manatees are vegetarians. They can eat like pigs, though, chowing down one-tenth of their body weight in just 24 hours. Think about it–that’s 100 pounds of grass and algae down the hatch in one short day.
With all the blubber they’ve got, you’d think that manatees would have lots of insulation. But you’d be wrong–they are highly sensitive to cold water, which is why you see them in our neck of the woods only in the middle of summertime. Some experts say manatees need access to water with temperatures over 60 degrees, while others put the number at 68 degrees.
Here’s a weird fact: Down in Florida, many manatees have changed their migration patterns in recent decades. Rather than head for points south for the winter months, they stick around and hang out in the waters near nuclear power plants, where water discharges create big pockets of artificially warmed water. The Tampa Electric Company in Apollo Beach, FL has built a popular manatee overlook that’s open to the general public.
Another weird fact: Manatees can regrow lost teeth. As someone who suffers from an intense and irrational fear of dentists, I am very jealous.
And now for the weirdest fact of all: historians and folklore experts believe that manatee sightings are behind many of the old stories about mermaids. This is even reflected in the scientific name given to the creatures–they are classified in the order of “sirenius,” a word with roots going back to Greek myths about sirens of the sea and their irresistible singing.
These legends persisted for centuries. Many of the maps used by European sailors in the time of Christopher Columbus featured drawings of mermaid-like creatures in waters populated by manatees. While sailing in the Caribbean, Columbus wrote in his log about some “female forms” that “rose high out of the sea, but were not as beautiful as they are represented.”
The famed Chesapeake explorer John Smith had a similar experience while in the Caribbean in 1614, though his taste in the female form seems to have leaned a good deal more toward the Rubenesque than did that of Columbus.
“Her long green hair imparted to her an original character by no means unattractive,” Smith wrote. He added that when this “mermaid” turned over to show off her body, he had “begun to experience the first effects of love.”
OK, we’re clearly getting into too-much-information territory. But before moving on, I would like to point out in Smith’s defense that you can see in the photo here that he may not have been making up that bit about green hair.
Manatees can live as long as 60 years. Their average lifespan is 40. They seem to have no natural predators, but some experts have them rated as a species “vulnerable” to extinction. The biggest culprits? Collisions with powerboats and encounters with nets and other fishing equipment.
With just one sighting a year on average in the Bay and one a decade in Ocean City, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll ever encounter a manatee in the waters around our neck of the woods. But if it does happen, call the National Aquarium at 410.576.3880. They’ll try and keep an eye out for the big guy or gal while he or she is here.
—written by Jim Duffy
Here are a few links for those of you who want more about manatees:
• An article from the Daily Times about that Ocean City manatee sighting in 2015.
• Some fun facts about manatees put together by the Smithsonian.
• The article where I learned a bit about manatees and mermaids.
• Over in the Shore Store, nature lovers will find sweet greeting cards featuring shots by Jill Jasuta Photography of some really adorable Eastern Shore creatures, including this pair of baby ducks. The cards are ready for mailing, framing, gifting–whatever you like!