What are manatees and is there anything we can do to help them?

Often nicknamed “cows of the sea”, the manatee is a peaceful giant and one of the earth’s most loveable animals. With their homes and lives now under threat from incessant, global plastic pollution, it’s up to us to try and save them before they succumb to extinction.

What is a manatee?

Manatees are large, fully aquatic herbivorous mammals, occupying the same kind of environmental niche as their four-legged namesakes on land – the manatee is actually more closely related to the cow than it is to whales or dolphins. In fact, scientists suggest that modern-day elephants are the manatee’s closest living relative.


Plump and covered in thick, wrinkled skin, manatees are graceful yet languid swimmers, their sheer size (400-550 kilograms) something of an encumbrance in the water. They ordinarily swim alone or in pairs, but are rarely ever seen in larger groups, preferring the company of their partners or young when traversing the beds of large estuaries as they search for aquatic plants to graze on.

They live entirely in the water but do come up for air, the average manatee able to remain submerged for up to 15 minutes at a time. They have insatiable appetites, some reports claiming that an adult manatee can gorge on as much as a tenth of its own body weight in just 24 hours – that’s around 40-50kg of water grass, weeds and algae!

Where do they live?

Manatees inhabit the warm coastal waters around the tropics, lazing in the mouths of estuaries where the aquatic plant life is most fruitful. There are three known species, the West Indian manatee ranging along the North American east coast in waterways from Florida to Brazil, the Amazonian manatee that is found only within the Amazon river, and the African manatee that calls the west coast of Africa its home.

They prefer warmer waters and are known to migrate through brackish estuaries towards freshwater springs as the seasons and temperatures change around them. They don’t tolerate colder waters too well and despite their massive bulk, they actually have very little fat on them – the colder waters chill them to the bone, often proving fatal below 15°C.


These warm-water habitats are slowly running out as residential development in the three key habitat zones steadily increases. Some manatees have even been forced to rely on warm-water outfalls from electric power plants instead – their natural, warm water springs now off limits.

What are the threats?

A reduction in warm-water spring areas isn’t the only threat that manatees face, with plastic ingestion, entanglement and water tourism all posing risks to global manatee populations. Manatees are incredibly curious creatures and will often use their mouths and flippers to rummage through their surroundings, this behaviour often leading them to ingest discarded plastic or become entangled in fishing lines. With intestines over 100 feet long, it’s impossible for a manatee to digest plastic and instead the waste is left to slowly build up inside them, eventually killing them.


They are also at threat from water tourism, with boats and guided trips along coastlines and river mouths often failing to notice these giants underneath them. As they’re incredibly inquisitive, manatees will swim right up to the bottom of the boats, only to be caught in the engine’s propellers as they move on.

While food is bountiful in some estuarine environments, it is slowly being poisoned in others. Massive blooms of toxic red algae in Floridaand heavy metal leaching due to agriculture have been blamed for mass manatee deaths, the most recent one killing over 540 in Florida.

How can we help them?

4Ocean have partnered up with Save the Manateeand are now offering limited edition, manatee bracelets[EN1] throughout the month of October. Each purchase pulls a pound of trash right from the coastlines that these manatees call home.


Not only that, but the money raised also goes towards increasing public awareness, sponsoring life-saving research and pushing through policies that will go a long way to protect them. The time to act is now, before it’s too late for one of the world’s most peaceful giants.

 [EN1]We couldn’t find a link to the Manatee bracelet on the Londonsurf shop. Is this something you can add in when available?

Will Newton