Meet the Unusual Antillean Manatee

If you’ve ever seen the oddly graceful manatee make its way through water you might well be captivated by these unusual creatures. This delightful aquatic mammal belongs to the Sirenia mammalian order and is often grouped together with Dugongs and the now extinct Steller’s Sea Cow. As such, they are often referred to as sea cows but this is in fact incorrect. The Antillean Manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus), which inhabits the waters surrounding Puerto Rico, is probably the most famous of all the aquatic animals in the oceanic waters off the coast of this beautiful island.

The manatee does not resemble a fish in any way, but rather brings to mind the image of a really fat, crumply-looking dolphin. In fact, the average dolphin looks more like a fish than a manatee does. These sausage-shaped creatures have no dorsal fins and its tail is broad and flat. It has no hind limbs of any sort and it is easy to see that this creature must enjoy a relatively slow-moving lifestyle. Manatees may be about 3 meters in length and weigh up to 1 500 kilograms, but this is rare. The average body weight is between 400 and 600 kilograms and females are usually bigger and weigh more than males. Their gray or brown bodies have no scales, but rather they feature a fine pelage covering of unusual hair that grows sparsely on the body here and there. Despite their wrinkly, lumbering appearance they have been known to be surprisingly agile in water, sometimes doing somersaults, rolls and swimming upside-down during play. They may eat between nine and thirty kg of sea grasses and plant leaves per a day and have been known to eat invertebrates and fish on occasion.

What makes the Antillean Manatee in Puerto Rico particularly interesting is that the IUCN has listed it as a ‘vulnerable’ species. The waters surrounding Puerto Rico and its nearby islands are a prime breeding ground for the manatee and so the connection between the island and the animal is not only one of curiosity but also one of great importance. The most famous manatee to come from Puerto Rican waters has to be Moisés who was rescued by the Caribbean Stranding Network at two months of age. After 27 months of careful care, he became the first orphaned and captive-raised manatee to be successfully released back into the waters of the Caribbean. If you plan to do some snorkeling or scuba diving in Puerto Rico, keep an eye out for these unusual creatures. They generally avoid visitors, but they may just be willing to make an appearance for you if you are lucky enough.