Our Favorite Manatee Photos of All Time

© Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

By Johanna Read, Reader's Digest

Manatees in the wild

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Sometimes called sea cows, manatees are arguably cuter than most cows. Their shallow coastal-water habitat makes them quite easy to spot in the wild, especially in Florida. Photographing them, however, can be harder, since the water is sometimes murky. Enjoy these photos of the ocean's largest vegetarians.

Manatees live underwater and breathe air

© Jeff Stamer/Shutterstock

Though they spend their lives underwater, manatees are mammals and they must breathe air. They rise to the surface every three to five minutes to breathe, though the Smithsonian reports that they can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes. Like other marine mammals, manatees can shut off half of their brains so that they can sleep underwater—but still stay awake enough to remember to breathe during their naps. This is called unihemispheric sleep, according to

These cuties like their veggies

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Manatees tend to have very expressive faces. A close-up of a manatee's face might even make you think you're looking at a photo of a seal or sea lion. Manatees, though, have grayer bodies that can look kind of lumpy, as well as very powerful paddle-like tails. Despite being vegetarians, manatees are big mammals. They can grow to 14 feet and reach up to 1,300 pounds, according to National Geographic.

Not all manatees look alike

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That's because there are three types of manatees, according to The largest is the West Indian manatee, found in the coastal waters of the southeastern United States, the Caribbean, and Central America. There's also a similarly sized West African manatee. The smallest manatee is the one shown here, the Amazonian manatee, which lives in freshwater in the Amazon River in South America. It also has a pointier nose than other manatees.

Manatees' whiskers serve an important purpose

© Jeff Stamer/Shutterstock

The shape of manatees' snouts can help differentiate between them, according to Sirenian International. The Amazonian manatee has the pointiest snout, while the West African manatee has the widest. And, just as with humans, manatee snouts differ from individual to individual—and some of them look quite comical. But all manatees' snouts have sensitive whiskers that they use to feel and differentiate their environment and to help them eat, similar to how their cousin the elephant uses its trunk.

A mama manatee nurtures her babies

© Janos Rautonen/Shutterstock

Manatees can start to reproduce around the age of 5, and, according to, a manatee pregnancy lasts about one year. Mothers nurse their babies for about two years, though a baby is able to eat plants just a few weeks after it is born.

Manatees tend to be loners

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Manatees usually hang out alone or occasionally with one other manatee. Unlike these 11 monogamous animals that stay together all of their lives, after manatees mate, they likely never see each other again. When larger groups of manatees get together, it's often so that they can find a mate. As explains, manatees also congregate when an area has a good food supply or, as in this photo, warm water.

Manatees like warm baths

© Alex Couto/Shutterstock

Unlike many sea mammals, manatees don't have any blubber. For this reason, they can't live for very long in cold waters below 68 degrees. In the winter, many West Indian manatees migrate to the warm waters of Florida's Citrus County near Crystal River. The natural springs in the area maintain a temperature between 72 and 74 degrees, which is perfect for manatees. Thanks to these warm waters, Citrus County's natural springs contain the world's largest manatee concentration from November to April.

You can swim with manatees in the United States—but only in one place

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Manatees are protected in the United States, which means there are lots of rules to protect them. But in Citrus County, Florida, about 85 miles west of Orlando, you can snorkel, scuba dive, kayak, and stand-up paddleboard with them, as long as you respect the rules not to touch or disturb them. The manatees near Crystal River are so used to human swimmers that they mostly ignore them. But, as manatees are curious creatures, they do sometimes swim close to check out an interesting human.

How to help manatees

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Because manatees are curious, they can sometimes end up in places they shouldn't. They can become trapped in ditches and navigation locks, especially after a very high tide. Boat strikes can also injure them, and sometimes baby manatees are orphaned. If you see a manatee in trouble in Florida, where most manatees in the United States are, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922). But most importantly, do your part to maintain healthy manatee habitats, which, according to, are adversely affected by development, pollution, and climate change.

Watch out for these slow swimmers

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Manatees are slow-moving animals, which makes them susceptible to boat strikes. A manatee usually cruises along at about five miles per hour. But they can put on a burst of speed for a short time—up to about 15 miles per hour, says

Manatees go to rehab after being rescued

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When manatees are rescued, they often need to go through extensive rehabilitation so that, one day, they can be released back into the wild. SeaWorld Orlando released six rehabilitated manatees in 2017, one of their busiest years. One of the six was an orphaned manatee who'd been rescued in 2014 when it was just 2 weeks old. Through constant care over three years, the staff helped the manatee grow from 48 pounds to 775 pounds so she'd be strong enough to survive on her own. That's about half of what a healthy adult manatee weighs: up to 1,800 pounds. Yep, that's big!

The good life of a manatee

© Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

When healthy and when their habitat isn't under threat, manatees lead a pretty good life. They spend most of their days eating and sleeping. The caretakers at Xcaret Park in Cancún, Mexico, report that their two rescued manatees "love slow swimming, eating, and, above all, resting." The manatees that spend the winter in Citrus County like to sleep in the afternoons, after having a large breakfast in the mornings. So if you want to swim with them when they're most active, book a morning trip with a guide.

Here's where you can see manatees

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Florida is a manatee hot spot, especially in Citrus County. Blue Spring, under an hour from Orlando, is a manatee refuge in the winter, with swimming and boating prohibited so manatees can live as natural a life as possible. And Belize has the largest number of manatees in Central America, as manatees love the warm, shallow waters surrounding Belize's small cays and islands. On a quiet, private island like Cayo Espanto, you might get lucky and have a manatee swim right up to your dock while you're relaxing under an umbrella. Check out the map on to see where manatees and their dugong cousins can be seen around the world.

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Pets Magazine: Our Favorite Manatee Photos of All Time
Our Favorite Manatee Photos of All Time
Get up-close and personal with these gentle giants that are notoriously hard to photograph—and learn all about them while you're at it!
Pets Magazine
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