Manatee Appreciation Day
the last Wednesday in March
Manatee Appreciation Day raises awareness for manatees, sea creatures whose various species are either threatened or endangered. Their name comes from the Carib language word for breast or udder, and they are also known as sea cows. They live in coastal areas of oceans and seas, as well as in rivers. The names of the three manatee species reflect where they live. The West Indian manatee, also known as the American manatee, lives in the southern and eastern United States, and has made its way as far as the Bahamas; the West African manatee lives along the coasts and in the rivers of western Africa; and the Amazonian manatee lives in the Amazon River basin, and has a large range of about 2.7 million square miles.
Manatees belong to the order of Sirenia, which also includes the dugong, and the now extinct Steller's sea cow. Manatees are also closely related to elephants and hyraxes. They are the largest herbivore in the ocean, ranging from 8 to 13 feet in length, and 440 to 1300 pounds. They can eat ten to fifteen percent of their body weight in vegetation every day—meaning they may eat over 130 pounds of food. Those that live in the sea eat seagrasses, while those in rivers eat freshwater vegetation. Manatees also eat algae.
Whisker-like hairs called vibrissae cover manatees. About 2000 of them are on a manatee's face, and 3000 on their bodies. Manatees also have flippers and a strong flat tail, and usually swim at about five miles per hour, although they can swim at speeds of fifteen miles per hour for short periods of time. They can hold their breath for 15 to 20 minutes, but usually surface every 3 to 5 minutes, and they never go on land. They may swim alone, in pairs, or in a herd—called an aggregation—of up to about six. The aggregation may be a mating herd, where males called bulls follow females, or the manatees may be congregated in an area because it is warm with a large food supply.
All manatee species are threatened, and some are endangered, highlighting why a day for appreciating and raising awareness for them is important. Although it is illegal to hunt them, they are still poached for their meat and hide, particularly in West Africa. They are also threatened by fishermen trawling with nets in West Africa and the Amazon basin. Manatees are often killed in boat collisions, especially by speedboats. They are also threatened by toxic red tide, and waterfront development wreaks havoc on their habitats.
How to Observe
Manatees may live up to 40 years, and it is the goal of Manatee Appreciation Day to raise awareness for the issues they face, so that they may live long lives. On this day, information about manatees should be shared, and you could even start your own awareness campaign. Events often take place at zoos and marine biology centers. Why not check to see if any events are going on at a zoo in your area? If there aren't any, perhaps you could help get one started. You could also donate to manatee conservation programs, or adopt a manatee.