Gentle Giants: How to View Manatees in Alabama

Manatees swim in shallow water along Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
Manatees swim in shallow water along Alabama’s Gulf Coast. NOAA's National Ocean Service
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Playful, inquisitive, graceful. These are just a few of the words often used to describe manatees, which are also known as the "gentle giants" of Alabama's shoreline.

Most of the year, these huge mammals frequent the shallow waters off Florida's coast, but during the summer months, you can spot them all along the northern Gulf Coast, from Florida to Mississippi. While we're in the latter days of summer, it's still possible to encounter manatees. Whether you're heading out soon for a Gulf trip, or you need ideas for next summer, check out our a primer on viewing these magnificent animals.

Sea Cows, Mermaids, Manatees

Scientists have found that manatees are closely related to the elephant.
Scientists have found that manatees are closely related to the elephant. US Fish and Wildlife Service

The first writings about this cute, cuddly creature came during the golden age of exploration when explorers like Columbus reported seeing what they believed were "female figures swimming in the ocean." They called them mermaids.

Today, we know them as West Indian manatees or simply manatees. Scientists have determined that these large, roly-poly grey mammals are closely related to the elephant, and they sport a very short, trunk-like snout. In addition, manatees have long whiskers on their full, round head, small pouty black eyes, and a thick barrel of a body with flippers on each side. The thick body tapers into a powerful, flat-tail flipper.

While manatees have adapted to live in saltwater, brackish water, and fresh water, they do require an adequate daily supply of fresh water to survive. They tend to live in shallow, slow-moving rivers, back bays, and estuaries where warm water (over 60 degrees) provides excellent shelter, breeding grounds, and food sources. Their diet consists of sea grasses and algae, and they can eat up to 10% of their body weight a day. Considering that they weigh on average between 1,200 and 1,600 pounds, that's a lot of foraging.

Manatees were placed on the endangered species list in 1973.
Manatees were placed on the endangered species list in 1973. USFWS Endangered Species

Manatees can be found year-round in Florida in water that is 3 feet to 7 feet deep. In the summer, they move up to the central Gulf where they are found in water 10 feet to 16 feet deep. And they can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes before surfacing for air.

Viewing Manatees Responsibly

Because manatees swim close to shore in shallow water, people can spot them in Alabama's waterways. Unfortunately, the manatee population has been declining, in part because of their interaction with humans. They became federally protected in 1972 and were placed on the endangered species list in 1973.

Part of the problem is that manatees are playful and inquisitive, and don't shy away from people. So, some people interpret this behavior as a signal that it's OK to jump in the water, swim with the manatees and even climb on them for a ride. Next to feeding them, that is the worst thing you can do.

A mother manatee and her calf.
A mother manatee and her calf. PSYBerArtist

These types of interactions can change a manatee's behavior significantly. For example, you could inadvertently cause the animal to stray into cooler water, which could be deadly. According to the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, cold water can cause a manatee;s metabolism to slow, which can lead to digestion problems, decreased appetite, weight loss, weakened immune systems, and greater susceptibility to diseases. Also, manatees that move into deeper water run the risk of being hit by a boat.

So, how can we view manatees without putting them at risk?

According to the nonprofit Save-the-Manatee organization, the proper way to view manatees is by practicing "passive observation." Whether you observe them above water (the preferable method), or while swimming, snorkeling, or diving, you should keep a safe distance from the animals—about 100 feet. If you're in the water, avoid excessive noise and splashing, and don't touch them, feed them or give them water.

Where to See Manatees in Alabama

While manatees are known to migrate from Florida to the central Gulf Coast in the warm months of summer, they're elusive creatures, and you just never know where you might see one.

You can find manatees in Alabama deep into Mobile Bay.
You can find manatees in Alabama deep into Mobile Bay. Matthew Fauver

Your best bet is to visit the Dauphin Island Sea Lab's Manatee Sighting website, which includes a map indicating where people have spotted manatees throughout the years, and where you'll most likely see them again. As you'll see on the map, Alabama has had many sightings along the coast and deep into Mobile Bay and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Reports have come in as far north as Saraland, a good 60 miles from the Gulf.

If you do spot a manatee, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab asks that you report it to its 24-hour sighting hot-line so the lab can help protect these gentle giants for years to come.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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