Originally published on Audubon Guides on August 6th, 2012
Who wouldn't tune in to watch a showdown between the “slow moving”, baked potato-shaped West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus) and an Olympic gold medalist swimmer? Few people would put money on the bulbous beast to win a race against any human let alone an Olympian, the fastest of which can swim nearly 4 ½ mph. Surprisingly, the aquatic plant-munching manatee lazily drifts along at 3-5 mph and when pressed can zip along at 15 mph—three times faster than an Olympian.
|West Indian Manatee and calf © Jungle Pete|
As of the start of the 2012 London Games, swimmer Michael Phelps had won 16 medals in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. He stands a sleek six feet four inches and weighs around 185 pounds. Compare that to the barrel-shaped manatee that can weigh over 1200 pounds and reach lengths of thirteen feet long it’s hard to believe this would even be a contest but it is – in the manateesfavor.
Despite their ability to swim rapidly in short bursts of speed, manatees are often victims of collisions with watercraft that can seriously injury or kill them. It has been disproven thatmanatees cannot hear approaching boats. The question remains – why don’t they escape? Is their reaction time too slow? Is there too much auditory stimulus to sort out?
In 2011, Florida Fish and Wildlife conducted their annual manatee survey and counted 4834 – the second highest number since surveys began in 1991. That same year, 453 confirmed manatee deaths were recorded in Florida’s waters. Eighty-eight deaths were attributed to watercraft collisions including impacts and propeller wounds. One hundred and twenty deaths were undetermined and in the wake of an extended cold spell, 112 died from cold stress.
While wake zones have been established in high traffic manatee areas, boater complacency and accidental collisions still occur. Every year we continue to lose roughly ten percent of themanatee population, but many of those losses can be prevented through respect of their habitat by boaters and access to natural springs and warm water discharge from power plants.
Many tune in to watch the grace and athleticism of the Olympians competing in London. Consider There’s a show going on under the sea too, if only more of us would slow down and enjoy it.