Friday, November 24, 2017

The story behind manatees

Manatee at Estero Hondo - photo credit ecoguiadominicana.comManatees, also known as sea cows, are gentle slow-moving ocean dwellers, who stay close to shore and sometimes scare the hell out of watersport lovers when they unexpectedly come close. From the vantage viewpoint of a kitesurfer their form in the water can be described as a formless grey mass which could be anything from a formless shark to a small whale. Enough to make you want to turn around quickly.

Despite dwindling numbers, they have been sighted in both Cabarete and Las Terrenas, and a manatee sanctuary has been set up since the late nineties close to Punta Rucia.

Manatee at Estero Hondo - photo credit Sanctuario Mamifero Marino de Estero Hondo5A love for warm shallow waters
The sea cows that live in Dominican waters are categorized as Antillean manatees, a sub-species of the West Indian manatee. Like all other manatees, they can only survive in warm waters and prefer shallow waters. Apart from that they’re pretty happy in salt, brackish or fresh water. They are able to satisfy their fresh water intake by eating sea grass, and only need to go up a river once every two weeks to drink fresh water.

Strict diet, trunk-like lips and hand-like flippers
Living on a strict diet of seagrass, algae and other aquatic plants, a fully grown male sea cow usually weighs about half a ton and measures nearly three meters in length. The sea grass diet also means the animal only has cheek teeth, which are continuously replaced throughout life with new teeth growing at the rear as older teeth fall out from farther forward in the mouth. This process also occurs in kangaroos and elephants, who incidentally are the manatee’s closest relative.
Manatees at Estero Hondo - photo credit accesdr.comManatees also use their muscular lips to tear plants and guide food to their lips, not unlike the way an elephant uses its trunk.  Their flippers have jointed bones and serve a function similar to a human hand. Their structure helps the manatee move through the water, bring food to its mouth, and hold objects. Three or four nails are found at the end of each flipper. Unlike other mammals, manatees can't turn their heads because they miss one cervical vertebrae. To look around they must turn their whole bodies.

Taking it easy
Manatees are usually solitary animals, unless a mother is with her young, or males are following a receptive female. They tend to spend about half of their day sleeping submerged, surfacing for air regularly at intervals of less than twenty minutes. The remainder of the time is mostly spent grazing in shallow waters at depths of one to two meters.  They usually cruise at easy speeds of eight kilometers an hour but can handle up to 24 kilometers an hour for short periods of time. While swimming, it must surface every three or four minutes to breathe.

A mother manatee with her two calves - photo credit Sanctuario Mamifero Marino de Estero Hondo2Manatees typically breed once every two years; with generally only a single calf being born. The mother manatee carries the calf for about a year and a further twelve to eighteen months are needed to wean the calf. Manatees, if left alone, tend to reach the mature age of fifty or even sixty.

Sometimes mistaken for a sea mermaid
Despite the fact that manatees are large, they have a seal-shaped bodies with paired flippers and a round, paddle-shaped tail, and are graceful swimmers. Not only can manatees swim vertically and upside down, they can also do rolls and perform aquatic somersaults. They also have big round nearly human eyes, which is why some people think that sailors in the past mistook these sea creatures for the legendary sea mermaid, who was half woman, half fish.

Sailing near the Dominican Republic in 1493, explorer Christopher Columbus described in his log some "female forms" that "rose high out of the sea, but were not as beautiful as they are described". Unlike other sailors he was also not tempted by them as his ship came through the encounter unscathed. Others have pointed at the sighting of sea mermaids as the reason why they hit the rocks and sank.

Manatees at Estero Hondo - photo credit Sanctuario Mamifero Marino de Estero HondoManatee at Estero Hondo - photo credit Sanctuario Mamifero Marino de Estero Hondo4
No predators but officially endangered
Manatees sometimes get attacked by crocodiles but usually don’t have any other predators than mankind. Despite trying to stay away from humans and human activity, they often get hit by boats, sometimes killing them in the process. Though officially protected by a number of international laws and conventions, illegal hunting is still ongoing for its fat and skin.

Estero Hondo Manatee Sanctuary - photo credit ecoguiadominicana.comManatee Bay
The beautiful lagoon of Estero Hondo covering nearly fifty square kilometers of pristine water became an official manatee sanctuary in the late nineties and hosts a population of between sixty and two hundred individuals. Mothers with calves are often sighted which has led to hopeful conclusions of the population growing.

More information on the Santuario de Mamíferos Marinos Estero Hondo
Find out how to get there

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