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10 Fascinating Manatee Facts You’ll Discover on a School Trip to Crystal River, FL

1. Related to Who?

Manatees are mammals, similar in shape to walruses and seals, but their closest living relative is the elephant! With thick skin and toenails similar to elephants, manatees use their prehensile lips to grasp food, much like an elephant uses its trunk. Unlike fish, manatees need to breathe air and replace 90% of the air in their lungs with each breath. They can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes!

2. Who Are You Calling Fat?

Despite their large size, manatees don’t have much blubber. They can suffer from cold stress in water below 68 degrees. That’s why they migrate to the warm, spring-fed waters of Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, where the water is consistently 72 degrees.

3. A Big Toothy Grin—Open Wide...Chomp, Chomp…

Manatees are herbivores with teeth designed for munching seagrass. They can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh as much as 3,000 pounds. They consume 5-10% of their body weight in greenery daily and grow new teeth throughout their lives, similar to elephants.

4. Sailors Said What? Hey! We Resemble That!

Sailors once mistook manatees for mermaids, leading to myths and legends. Christopher Columbus even described them as mermaids with masculine traits. The scientific name for manatees, Sirenia, comes from the Greek Sirens, the mythical sea nymphs who lured sailors to their doom.

5. Slow and Steady

Manatees have the smallest brain-to-body size ratio among mammals, but they are intelligent, capable of learning basic tasks and differentiating colors. They prefer to travel slowly, at 3-5 miles per hour.

6. Mama and Babies

Female manatees are pregnant for a year, and the calf stays with the mother for up to two years. Manatees are ready to have their own young by five years old, with females breeding at 3-5 years and males at 5-7 years.

7. Not a Threat, But Threatened

Manatees are gentle with no natural predators, but humans pose the biggest threat through boating collisions and habitat destruction. Conservation efforts are crucial to their survival.

8. Remember Snooty and Say Hello to Zach and Rachel

Snooty, the oldest known manatee, lived to 69 years in captivity. Rachel, a rehabilitated manatee, survived nearly 20 years after being released into the wild. Zach is the oldest known wild male manatee, regularly sighted in Crystal River.

9. Swim With a Manatee

Crystal River is one of the best places to swim with manatees, but it’s important to practice Passive Observation. Look but don’t touch, as disturbing these protected creatures can result in a citation.

10. Live Long and Prosper!

Efforts to protect manatees include speed restrictions for boats and designated manatee protection zones. Following guidelines and preserving their habitat can ensure the survival of manatees for generations to come.

"When people come here, whether they swim with the manatees or view them from the boardwalk, it’s an amazing experience,” said Joyce Palmer, manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. “Our hope is that when they leave, they will take that experience with them and go beyond that and want to protect their habitat."

For more information, visit National Geographic's Manatees page and learn about educational trips with Appleseed Expeditions.

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