- Issue: Fall 2017
ICHETUCKNEE SPRINGS STATE PARK :: FLORIDA
In a journal entry dated 1493, Christopher Columbus wrote that he espied three “mermaids” beside his ship during his voyage to the Caribbean. At the time, half-human, half-fish sea creatures were common lore—often conflated with the Sirens of Greek mythology, whose singing lured sailors to their doom. But it’s likely that Columbus’s accounts were inspired by manatees, the gentle herbivores known to sometimes perform “tail stands” in shallow water.
West Indian manatees are endemic to the warm, coastal waters of the Caribbean, Mexico, Belize, and Florida—regions where WWF works both to prevent upstream agricultural pollution from draining into rivers and reef systems, and to protect and restore mangrove ecosystems. Manatees often migrate from brackish estuaries to the freshwater springs and lagoons that wind through coastal mangrove forests. These distinctive habitats nurture an incredible range of biodiversity—including seagrasses and other aquatic vegetation that make up most of the manatee’s diet. They also function as nurseries for commercially important reef species and protect coasts from storms and erosion.
Around the 1970s, the Florida manatee numbers dropped frightfully low. But conservation efforts have significantly bolstered their numbers, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced the mammals had been downlisted from Endangered to Threatened on the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. But even with this progress in the Florida populations, these slow-moving mammals still face substantial threats, including water pollution, collisions with boats, and habitat loss.