Too slow for comfort
I’M LOOKING INTO a very odd eye. It’s round and tiny, and I’m not sure if it is conveying surprise, curiosity or simply blank incomprehension.
It doesn’t look like a mammal’s eye. There are no eyelids or tear ducts, and no corners. It is lost in the broad, wrinkled, mournful-looking face, and looks like the hole where a teddy-bear’s eye used to be stitched in.
The look probably isn’t surprise, even though I had appeared through half-metre vis. In this particular creek in Florida I am one of hundreds of snorkellers this manatee and its small community encounter day after day.
The operators watch us like hawks, having drilled us in a strict code of conduct and threatened us with the full might of the American legal system in the event of any misdemeanour.
Humans have outnumbered manatees here for many decades, and become part of their lives.
Around 5000 of them come into waterways in Florida such as Crystal River to seek warmth in the winter and spring – and find tourists waiting.
The look in this strange eye is probably not curiosity, either. Manatees have small, simple brains – they have never needed to be particularly smart. So I’m leaning towards blank incomprehension.
THESE DOPEY, PLACID BEASTS are definitely adorable. My buddy Susan finds a youngster who wants to nuzzle up, and the manatee rolls over to get armpit and belly scratches. The skin feels like it looks – wrinkly, tough and elephant-like, a clue to these creatures’ odd ancestry.
Despite this rubbery skin, they look as if they were designed to cuddle. I’m really not sure I can see the early sailors’ confusion with mermaids, however.
Malcolm Nobbs spent a long weekend in Florida getting these manatee photos, based at the Homosassa River, a little south of Crystal River: “Visibility was quite poor and the water cooler than I had been led to believe,” he told me. “However, my manatee encounters were every bit as good as I’d hoped they would be.
“There is something very special about interactive snorkelling. My first manatee insisted that I rubbed its back, then its tummy!
“A wonderful experience I was able to repeat on each of five snorkel trips.”
WEST INDIAN MANATEES are massive. Large adults exceed 4m in length and some weigh nearly 2 tonnes.
The enormous bulk reflects the amount of digestion and the sheer volume of seagrass and seaweed necessary to support a vegetarian marine mammal. They eat about a tenth of their own bodyweight of this low-nutrient food each day, chewing it with continuously replaced teeth.
They then spend a week digesting the grass, using bacteria in their enormous hindguts in a similar way to that in which horses digest grass.
Everything about their bodies is designed for continuous, slow grazing. Their tail is a broad, sweeping spoon-shape, built for slow swimming in sheltered waterways. Manatees live in estuaries and rivers more than in the sea.
Giving some kind of stability to their bulky barrel-bellies are massive, solid heavy ribs, which act as ballast, and long, flat lungs lying right up against the back.
Like the weebles that wobble but don’t fall down, when a manatee rolls over for a belly-scratch it’s having to work against its ballast to do it, and when it relaxes it rocks back and settles into its naturally stable position.
Manatees live from Florida down to northern Brazil, where they have access to calm, sheltered seagrass beds, but they are rare throughout most of this area.
Florida, where they are reasonably well-protected, is by far the most accessible spot in which to find them.
Dozens of operators run manatee tours each winter. Visibility is often extremely poor, and you may find yourself among a largish group of snorkellers.
I seemed to have the knack of finding clumsy ones who couldn’t keep their legs afloat and kicked up clouds of silt from the bottom.
Two other species of slightly smaller manatees live further off the beaten track, one in the Amazon, and the other on West African coasts and estuaries.
WHEN GEORG STELLER undertook his amazing pioneering voyage to the cold north Pacific in 1741, he found the last couple of thousand giant sea cows.
The sirenians (the group including manatees and dugongs) that took Steller’s name, were closely related to dugongs, but much more massive than their modern relatives.
They were as big as a bull orca, up to about 9m long and 9 tonnes in weight – five times as big as the largest manatees.
They must have provided quite a spectacle, originally seen from Japan around the cool, productive coasts of the north Pacific to Vancouver Island.
Inevitably, such a massive and docile creature living close to shore was going to fall foul of humans.
By the time Steller arrived to describe them, they had already been reduced to a small population off the Commander Islands by indigenous hunters, and a couple of decades after westerners moved into the north Pacific, these last few had gone. Their smaller remaining cousins live in warmer seas. Indian and West Pacific dugongs are related to the extinct Steller’s sea cows, and are much sleeker than the manatees.
They grow almost as long as manatees but are only about half the weight. They still have voluminous hindguts, and take a week to digest their food.
A preference for softer seagrasses, and toughened mouth pads that efficiently grind up these grasses, helps keep the gut size somewhat more svelte than that of the dugongs’ Atlantic cousins. The more smoothly rounded forehead, the underslung plough-like snout and fluked, dolphin-like tail all give them a far more streamlined shape.
Dugongs feed on slightly deeper, more exposed seagrasses than manatees do, from the Red Sea and Africa to northern Australia, and they are the only strictly marine herbivorous mammals.
They have preferred sites that they seem to cultivate, improving the seagrasses with fertiliser and by cropping just the shoots.
They use tides to bring them in and out of their feeding grounds, and in the cooler edges of their range, like manatees, migrate with the warmth of the seasons between foraging grounds.
My only dugong encounter was brief – heading via fast boat to an offshore reef in lumpy conditions off Marsa Shagra, and a large yellowish-grey shape rolled and dived off to the side, obviously spooked by the boat. The local dugong (I suspect there are a handful), affectionately known as Dennis, has to dodge the occasional boat and the more-than-occasional snorkeller at his rather popular feeding pasture.
“We found him in about 6m of water having a good feed,” Lydia Lodge told me, describing her “almost wonderful” experience a few years back. “He was huge, and his size did make me a little nervous to begin with.
“Prior to seeing him we had been given a full briefing on how close to get, how to move slowly and how to leave him some space while eating.
“Six of us spent a wonderful 15-20 minutes with him, when all of a sudden a load of snorkellers arrived, calling and squealing to each other and thrashing about.
“With that, Dennis started to really thrash his tail onto the seabed, created a huge plume of sand, and buggered off!”
By 2009, when Malcolm went looking for Dennis with guide Luke Atkinson, more resorts and more snorkellers moving down Egypt’s coast had made it more difficult to find and photograph him.
“We spent almost six hours under water searching for a dugong, covering all of Abu Dabbab before moving to nearby Marsa Shuni,” he says. “There, finally, Luke and I found a dugong.
“We’d done so much finning that I rubbed some skin off my heels, but I felt ecstatic. It stayed with us for 30 wonderful minutes. If other divers had been around it might not have been so
co-operative, but as it was, it really didn’t seem to mind our presence.”
The dugongs’ range was continuous throughout the warm Indian Ocean, but hunting, habitat loss and harassment of various kinds (including, of course, by mainly well-meaning divers) has broken up the range.
THE RED SEA HAS AROUND 2000 dugongs and the Arabian Gulf three times this number, but populations are much lower over most other parts of their former range.
Only around the north of Australia are there still populations in the tens of thousands.
Dugongs are more active and have a broader range than manatees. They can often be found in much clearer water, and it’s still possible to find and interact with them.
But they and their Atlantic cousins are definitely up against the ropes. Being protected from hunters or from overt harassment seems to lack teeth through most of their range, and they aren’t helped by the encroachment of humans on once-remote areas.
Dolphins and seals – in fact almost everything with which divers seek interactions – can effortlessly run rings around us in the water, and generally feed faster, deeper or further offshore than we could possibly disturb.
Sirenians, however, must spend much of their lives feeding slowly enough for us to be enabled to keep up, in shallow, sheltered areas accessible to us.
And we go looking for them at their dinner table. We don’t want other people to bother them. But we all want the interaction, too.