It's no secret that if you've ever explored the stunning waters of Florida's Intracoastal Waterway, you may have been privileged enough to spot one of its most charming residents — the manatee. These gentle aquatic mammals, sometimes affectionately dubbed "sea cows," have enchanted people for centuries. But in all that time, several misconceptions about these animals and some of our other marine creatures have emerged. It's easy to hold onto illusions when observing from the sidelines. Still, as crew members of the Manatee, we enjoy having a vantage point that offers a more profound understanding of these amazing creatures.
We see manatees up close and in action during their day-to-day activities, such as eating, moving around the Intracoastal, interacting with each other. As operators of the Manatee Scenic Boat Tours in Ponce Inlet, Florida, we're in a unique position to set the record straight on as many myths as possible — not just about manatees, but about the complex relationships they share with the broader marine ecosystem.
Manatees Aren't Lazy — They're Energy Efficient
One of the most persistent myths about manatees is that they are lazy creatures. This myth is primarily due to their slow movements and long hours of rest. Manatees are pretty efficient in their energy use. These majestic creatures have lower metabolic rates compared to other mammals of similar size, a characteristic that is primarily from forces that have guided their adaption to aquatic life. Due to this, their diet consists mainly of seagrass and other aquatic vegetation that manatees invest substantial time and energy into foraging. They feed on low-energy food that requires regular eating schedules. This routine helps shape their lifestyle, allowing them to conserve energy while devoting many other hours to finding and consuming their food.
Furthermore, manatees' slow movements are not due to laziness; they create energy-efficient use. Having quick, fast movements would not ensure the manatees could afford their dietary needs. Instead, they have adopted a slow, lethargic swimming style that allows them to navigate through their habitat while keeping energy expenditure to a minimum.
Manatees are Not Just Solitary Creatures
A common misconception has been making the rounds, painting manatees as solitary creatures that prefer to spend most of their lives alone. While not wholly unfounded, this belief only captures part of the spectrum of manatee behavior.
Manatees, while not social in the traditional sense, are frequently observed in aggregations — especially during winter. The manatee's need for warmth is the key to understanding these gatherings. As subtropical creatures, manatees are extremely sensitive to cold and require warm water to survive. They rely on various warm water sources to survive the winter, including natural springs and manufactured effluents like power plant outflows.
During these colder months, we witness a fascinating phenomenon: manatees gather in larger congregations around these warm water refuges. This is not a social gathering born out of a desire for companionship, but rather a practical group driven by shared needs. As such, these aggregations should not be mistaken for social structures. There's no hierarchy or leadership, as well as no long-term bonds or alliances. It's a communal effort dictated by the instinct to survive in sometimes harsh conditions.
Not All Manatees Are Fat
The chubby, round bodies of manatees have led to the assumption that these creatures are overweight. This isn't true. While it's easy to mistake these creatures as overweight, manatees possess a layer of fat.
Like other marine animals, manatees have evolved to survive aquatic environments where temperature regulation is critical. This layer of fat they carry helps them stay warm in colder waters, which is key to their survival. When we compare a manatee’s layer of fat to other marine animals in cooler environments, it's much smaller. When you look at a manatee, you're not seeing fat. You're seeing the product of a finely tuned, fibrous food processing machine.
Manatees Are Not Dolphins or Whales
Due to their size and aquatic nature, manatees are often mistakenly identified as a type of whale or dolphin. They are, in fact, a different type of mammal entirely. Manatees belong to an order called Sirenia, which includes the manatee species and their closest living relatives, the dugongs. Whales and dolphins belong to the Cetacean order, distinguishing them from manatees. This group consists of around 90 species of marine mammals that are carnivorous, feeding primarily on fish and invertebrates. They possess a completely different body structure from the manatees, designed for fast swimming.
While they share the same marine habitats and have similar adaptations to aquatic life, manatees and cetaceans have evolved these characteristics independently. This is a classic example of convergent evolution, where unrelated groups develop identical attributes in response to similar environmental challenges.
Manatees Are Not Completely Harmless
Manatees, as their “sea cow” nickname might suggest, are known for their gentle, peaceful behavior, leading people to believe they can cause no harm or threat to humans. While it’s true they aren’t necessarily aggressive, manatees have large bodies and often weigh up to 1,200 pounds, meaning that harm can be caused unintentionally to humans. Manatees are majestic creatures that can experience stress if touched directly by humans. Therefore, you always want to keep a respectful distance from manatees when observing the sea cows in their natural habitat. Although it can seem fun to feed the manatees or even try to interact with them, we always must keep in mind that they are still wildlife living in an environment that isn’t used to having human interaction. Therefore, when we invite folks aboard our boat tours, we make sure to educate our visitors and protect our wildlife.
Manatees, who are known for their slow and gentle lifestyles, have captured the imaginations of any of those who are fortunate enough to see them. Our journeys along Florida's intracoastal waterways have allowed us to understand these creatures better and debunk several long-standing myths. Manatees are not lazy, solitary, overweight creatures. They are not whales or dolphins, and they are not entirely harmless to humans. They are, however, prime members of our ecosystems and deserve plenty of respect and protection. We hope that when you venture out on our scenic boat tours, more individuals can appreciate the true nature of these interesting mammals. The manatees among the intracoastal waterways in Ponce Inlet have much to teach us if we take the time to observe and learn.