Yes, you read that right! A freaking MANATEE has been sighted in the waters surrounding the BVI, Lovango Cay and Fish Bay area of St. John! Can you believe that!? Probably not…And this is why. Manatees tend to habituate in areas with brackish water because most species of them need fresh water to survive in a healthy manner. And you have probably noticed that we don’t have a ton of that in the VI 🙂 So, where did he come from? What is he doing here? And how can we help him get home to a healthier habitat?
Last week I was at home, typing away at my computer, when Teddy exclaimed, “Where is Sean?”
Teddy was watching an Instagram story posted by one of our boat friends, Sean Vaughan-Housman, who had captured a short video of an underwater encounter with a gentle giant not familiar with these waters. A Manatee.
Video by Sean:
While working at the Terrace later that night I noticed Sean walking up the stairs to Banana Deck and I yelled at him…”The Manatee!!!”
He excitedly explained that he had not, in fact, been out of the territory, but had experienced this incredible encounter in HART BAY! We chatted back and forth a bit about what an anomaly that was and whether or not a manatee had ever been seen here. Neither of us could recall a mention of it. (We are now referring to him as Manny 🙂 )
Then, yesterday, I saw a post in a USVI Captain’s group on Facebook stating the following:
And then another post while we were AT LOVANGO CAY about the updated whereabouts of Manny!
Now, I’m no biologist, but after much reading I deducted that Manny is likely a subspecies of the West Indian (or American) Manatee, referred to as the Antilean Manatee. Antilean Manatees rely heavily on sea grass to make up their diets and while they can live in strictly salt water for long periods of time, they do need fresh water to survive. This is why you often see manatees in seaside areas with freshwater estuaries, such as coastal Florida and Puerto Rico, where they can have the best of both worlds. They thrive in areas with brackish water where they can slowly and gracefully swim between the two environments.
Now, they are generally solitary, so seeing Manny here by himself isn’t alarming in that aspect. And they do typically gravitate towards shallow waters where the sea grass beds can thrive in the sunshine (think Maho). But, he is likely starting to suffer due to his lack of salt water. The video posted by Sean was almost a week ago and the above post notates that the group in the BVI have been tracking him for months. And while manatees are very smart and good at finding fresh water sources, we all know that they simply don’t exist here without heavy rainfall runoff.
The research is inconclusive as to exactly how long these Endangered Species can live with salt water alone. Their kidneys are adaptive to allowing the intake of saltwater and filtering the salt out. However, in one scientific article I found the following information:
Captive manatees held in salt water without access to fresh water and fed a diet of sea grass showed significant increases in plasma osmolality and plasma concentrations of sodium and chloride within 9 days. These manatees eventually refused to eat sea grasses. These data suggest that wild manatees may require regular access to fresh, or perhaps brackish, water to meet water balance needs. – University of Central Florida Physiological Ecology and Bioenergetics Lab
So, too much salt without the balance of fresh water eventually will lead to Manny not eating and likely deteriorate from there. The glee I had in my heart about possibly spotting a manatee in our waters has dropped instantly to devastation for poor Manny after further investigation.
Oh, and the lack of fresh water isn’t the only threat to Manny here in the VI. Incidents involving fast moving watercraft are the leading cause of injuries to these slow moving and frequently breaching creatures. They come up for air every three to five minutes!
If you are a captain or crew or plan to be on a boat over the next little bit and you are reading this article, PLEASE keep a cautious eye on the water and don’t be on the boat that collides with Manny 🙂
Manny has most likely arrived in the VI from Puerto Rico (about 50 nautical miles away) where the population of manatees is currently dwindling just under 600. In Puerto Rico there is a Caribbean Manatee Conservation Center which rehabilitates injured or ill manatees and Manny will likely need a little TLC after his extended saltwater vacation.
And Manny isn’t the first manatee to be sighted this year. Just after Hurricane Fiona a conservation and community organization in the BVI, Beyond the Reef, started a timeline of manatee sightings in the USVI and BVI. The first sighting was just after the hurricane hit Puerto Rico and the belief is that the storm forced it off track.
Whether it is Manny or any other manatee, this is an instance in which the marine life could use a little bit of assistance from their human friends. If you are fortunate enough to spot one either on a boat or in the water, keep your distance. Just like our whale and dolphin and turtle friends, the manatees need their space. But they also need to be reported to the proper authorities so that they can be transported safely to the rehabilitation center in Puerto Rico. While it may be amazing to spot these beautiful creatures in our crystal-clear waters, these salty seas are not a safe habitat for them long term. If you see a manatee, drop a location pin and call 284-542-2705 or Beyond the Reef at 284-346-1444 in order to help with their tracking efforts to get him into a safer space. And PLEASE be extra careful if you are on the water on a power boat! We have lost so many turtles over the past few years due to boat related injuries. It would be just devastating to see that happen to a manatee that is meant to be rescued.