Do we have manatees in North Carolina?

March  2005

Not often. You’re more likely to see manatees in Florida, but they occasionally wander into North Carolina waters.

Florida Manatee

There are two sub-species of West Indian manatees (Trichechus manatus); Antillean manatees and Florida manatees. The first group inhabits parts of Central and South America. The latter inhabits the southeastern United States, particularly Florida.

During summer, Florida manatees sometimes follow the warming waters northward. They have been sighted in Georgia and the Carolinas, and one of the most famous travelers was Chessie.

In 1994, Chessie was captured and tagged in cold weather in Chesapeake Bay. She was released off the Florida coast. The next year she was again sighted in Chesapeake Bay and Rhode Island.

Manatees, also known as sea cows, are unique marine mammals. Large and gray with wrinkled faces, they are excellent swimmers. Strong, paddle-like tails propel them slowly through the water. Typically they measure about 11 feet long and weigh about 2,200 pounds. These are the creatures once mistaken to be mermaids by sailors.

These gentle giants graze on a wide variety of grasses and plants in rivers, bays, estuaries and coastal areas. They can live in fresh and salt water, but Florida manatees appear to need a source of fresh water. They are threatened by loss of habitat, poaching, entanglement in fishing gear and ever increasing boating activity. Researchers have come to identify individuals by the different scar patterns that result from boat collisions.

The Florida manatee is listed as endangered and protected by federal and state laws. Because they reproduce slowly, populations are not quickly replenished. Boaters should  always be alert for these slow-moving creatures, and environmental efforts to protect sea-grass areas can help increase their foraging areas and improve water quality.