Attack of the Manatees

manatee copy

It is amusing how we humans tend to diminish the intensity of an animal’s true power in order to feel we are at one with them. Snuggly little stuffed bears, ball bouncing killer whales, and the basis for much of what is Disney attempt to break down the barriers between hand and claw. Aren’t they cute? But it is only as real as the choice between you, me, or them. It is survival, plain and simple. The only caveat being we seem to have the upper hand. It is up to us to decide what we want to live, and what we want to die.

Florida Manatees

For the time being, we have decided to allow enough room for 3,000 or so Florida manatees to navigate boat propellers, pollution, and encroachment to their habitat. Even when they do find a brief respite, they are assaulted by the very humans that have been generous enough to give them some room to breathe. Imagine snorkel-breathing animal enthusiasts hell-bent upon stroking the backs of innocent manatees no matter the cost. I tell you all of this only because of guilt. I recently became one of those humans who was directly responsible for infringing upon the manatees’ way of life.

On a recent sea kayaking trip out to Egmont Key, I realized through simple observation that quite a few manatees find their way up the waterways behind the island of Fort de Soto. I followed a few as they moved to deeper water with the outgoing tide, each of them displaying propeller scars on their backs as a right of passage. I tried to keep some distance, but they would often approach my sea kayak curious to see if I was something more. I tried to shoot video footage of these docile creatures, but they often surfaced and submerged before I could get anything worthwhile.

I decided to return the following weekend to see if I could capture any more video for the archives.

You Will Not Believe What Happened To Me

Almost immediately upon arriving to Fort de Soto the sky unleashed. The normally placid surface of the Gulf of Mexico turned angry and the palm trees braced against the wind. The rain beat down upon the hoods of countless cars making their way across the bridge to the dry, air conditioned safety of their Tampa Bay homes. I sat and waited. I was happy to see the earth wash itself clean of people even if for a little while.

Soon the sky cleared, and I slowly unpacked my gear and prepared for a paddle out into the Gulf. The sun beat down, and the water was slick and steamy. No one was around except for an apathetic raccoon snacking on mollusks alongside the river bank. All was quiet except for the occasional breach of air given off by distant manatees.

I saw several manatees surface a few yards away from me and then quickly disappear. I was floating quietly in the shallows when a baby appeared under the boat. I fumbled for the camera, but it was gone before I was ready. The water was murky from the rain, so I could not anticipate where they would surface next. I decided to take a less proactive approach and fished for a while in hopes they would we find me. After a while I grew tired of the attentive gnats and the disregarding fish. I decided to call it a day.

I was paddling back to my car when a rather large manatee surfaced to my left. Without thought I instantly reached my left paddle blade into the water and placed a hard brace to stop myself. I thought, maybe I could get some video footage after all? Instead, this motion immediately set off a chain of events that I am still amazed by. The manatee abruptly arced its entire body through the water kicking up a sizeable wake. It began to buck wildly, thrusting its tail out of the water as it moved quickly towards me.

Have you ever been in a situation where you curiously marveled in fear at the brute force of an animal? As the manatee’s tail came closer and closer to me I wondered if it would knock me unconscious. I did the only thing that I could do which was paddle. I began stroking like I was poised above the tallest waterfall, for that is exactly what it looked like. The water was frothed and white like a river rapid, and just as I began to pick up momentum my entire body and kayak were lifted from the water.

My sea kayak surprisingly came down right side up; although, it was filled halfway with water. I was totally drenched but naturally ecstatic to see everything was okay. I could not believe what had happened. Weren’t manatees supposed to be gentle creatures?

Because the water was clouded by the rain, I will never know exactly what happened. However, I am fairly positive that I disturbed a pair of adult manatees that were safeguarding an infant. The baby would explain the defensive behavior, and the incredible amount of agitation in the water would point to more than one manatee. Even in the moment of action, I am quite sure I felt at least two bodies push underneath me. The tide was going out, and I must have cornered them in a fairly confining space. My only other explanation is that dolphins somehow got mixed up in the melee.

I am humbled by the parents’ protective display. Manatees do not have fangs or claws, but they do have the will to survive and take care of their own. You or me would have done the same if a threatening stranger had come into our house. Next time, I will remember my place.

If you can shed any more light on what exactly happened please feel free to leave a comment.

29 thoughts on “Attack of the Manatees”

  1. no shit. that’s a killer story. and although i’ve never been bull-rushed by a manatee or other large animal, i can totally relate to the explicit detail with which it’s possible to recant events of this proportion…for me, when stuff like this happens to me, it’s almost always in some kind of slow motion as it’s going down.

    “cool story, hansel”

  2. Jesus. That’s like getting attacked by Barney. I’ve been chased by pissed off elephants, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard of anyone getting on the bad side of a manatee.

    Only you…

  3. i just had a similar experience at the canaveral national seashore. My buddy and i were canoeing through the waters when almost out of nowhere, the manatee did almost the exact same thing. It hit our canoe with its tail, caused huge amount of wake and capsized our canoe. I was utterly dumbfounded by the whole experience. We hadn’t seen a manatee all day and seemingly out of nowhere, there it was. It was actually quite horrifying.

  4. Aaron, thanks for your comment! It is responses like yours that make blogging worthwhile. It is great to know I am not alone. And I hear you, I found it quite scary myself.

  5. I never that a manatee would be aggressive or attack people till today!!! My daughter (age 12) and I were kayaking for a seagrass survey for Sarasota county at Englewood area blind pass. We kayaked (drifted) over and near about 15 manatees. We seen a baby next to us that was scared by a boat. After we passed it, I had my DSLR camara out with 300 zoom lens for better pictures. Then out of no where, big splash!!! The splash was about 6 ft high. I thought a shark was attacking, But no, just a scared manatee leaving!!! This was breath taking for the both of us.

  6. Neat story! We kayaked this May in Florida on the East Coast near coco Beach and saw multiple manatees making the water broil. I had not been near enough to any of them when they surfaced to get a really good look only from afar until we were told it was time for our tour to move on. As I turned with Susan’s daughter, Greta in my kayak several surfaced just near us and came out from under us! Gentle BUT they are HUGE!! I can’t imagine what I’d have done if they were aggressive. It was thrilling to see them.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Jean! It is exciting to see them up close. They’ve been hard hit this season, being an El Nino year, with more than 200 dieing from cold temperatures. Hopefully they will make a strong comeback.

    Interesting side note: according to my web analytics, there have been 780 visitors to this blog post so far. Many of them are specifically searching the key phrase – “manatee attack.” I guess I’m not alone!

  8. It's amazing what manatees can and will do to protect their young. A buddy of mine has scars to prove it. While wade fishing at Fort Desoto in Pinellas County, FL a manatee calf approached him and he proceeded to pet it. All of a sudden he felt a sharp pain and turned around to witness a mother sea cow planting her teeth in his right calf muscle. 40 stiches and 27 staples later, he is all put back together, but it is a constant reminder to all of us of their true power. Who'd a tought that a creature that eats kelp and sea grass would have a set of chompers that rival Mike Tyson!

    1. Wow! That is amazing, especially since they only have hind molars. Either she got a hold of his whole leg, or the front plate was sharp enough to make an incision?

  9. St.Johns River near Blue Springs..Daughter and I, in small Kayaks. Saw Manatees tail and noses near shore. Paddled over for a look . Daughter drifted out 20yds. and I had 4 heads pop up behind me, and 4 more heads racing away. I tried to swing back into the channel, when I was hit on the side by a Manatee, rolling and slapped by it's fin. The bow was lifted and 3-4 huge Manatees pushed, crashed, charged, and lifted me and my boat out of the water. This lasted 2 full min. I got away,barely!

  10. The same exact thing happened to my and two of my friends this morning. We were canoeing out to an island in the intracoastal waterway last night and saw a couple of manatees. This morning when we were paddling back, out of nowhere a manatee bombarded the bottom of our canoe for about 10 seconds straight. Water was being splashed from both sides of the canoe which drenched us and filled about 2 inches of water in the canoe. We almost flipped, but luckily were able to keep it steady. Immediately after the “manatee” swam away very quickly leaving a giant white water wake in its path. Needless to say, it was quite the adrenalin rush. Also, until i read this blog, i thought it was the muck monster.

  11. Similar experience happened to my girlfriend yesterday at Fort Desoto Park. We were stand-up paddleboarding when a manatee lifted her board up from behind and she fell into the water and landed feet first onto a bed of oysters and sliced her foot open pretty good. She is fine and the manatee didn’t do anything else other then flip the board, but i never heard of anything like this until yesterday. Now i’ve read about others experiencing similar encounters. I was also almost flipped by a manatee a couple weeks ago but luckily he / she surfaced and took off just in front of me and my paddle board. It was like a cannon ball just landed in front of me and left this huge wake and i balanced the best i could to not fall in… pretty crazy experiences, glad nothing serious happened as a result.

  12. So yesterday my son, wife and I were swimming in the Gulf off Longboat Key probably 10 minutes south of Cortez Rd. My wife had just got out and my son was maybe 15 yards out and I was more like 20-30 out. We were free diving for shells. I come up for air and my wife and son are screaming at me to get out of the water. My first thought is a freaking shark. Instinct will tell you to pan and scan so I notice this huge mass trolling a foot and a half away. Not knowing what I’m dealing with panicking would be a mistake. So keeping an eye on this massive shadow I slowly backed out of the water. The creature showed no interest and stayed its course south along the beach. Apparently an on-looker come forward and said it was a manatee. A wild animal is just that. Unpredictable in every aspect. My experience was both horrifying and exhilarating. I had no interest in rubbing its belly or messing around with it. I too am indulging the what if scenario.

  13. Jeremy, I’ve never heard of anyone running in to trouble with a manatee when they are seaside; so I think you were fine. They often swim right by me when we have waves good enough to surf on the Gulf. Same thing on the East Coast. Although, anything large and grey in the water can be intimidating. :~)

    From what I have heard and witnessed, manatees responding aggressively always happen in the creeks and waterways where they are protecting their young.

    Nevertheless, thanks for sharing your story.

  14. Yesterday, my husband and I were in Crane’s Bayou on Longboat Key. We were paddling our sea kayaks when we spotted a pod of manatees. We think there were two or three calves with them. We stopped paddling and just tried to watch from about 20 yards away. As we began to leave the area, a large cow swam under my husband’s boat. Once it cleared the boat it thrust it tail to boil the water near his boat. A giant wake hit the front and side of the kayak. He quickly started paddling away from the manatees. At the same time, as I was trying to quickly leave the area, (almost as if the two animals coordinated the aggressive encounter), another manatee swam under my boat and lifted it off the water. My husband coached me to relax and paddle hard out of the bayou. As we were paddling away, two of the manatee followed us as we left the area–sort of like they had established their territory and once we were out of it, we were OK. We have never paddled on Longboat before this–quite scary for me. It definitely had to do with the babies as just the day before we paddled near two manatee in Fort DeSoto park with no incident.

  15. Have been kayaking Banana River lagoon for years seen lots of manatee and never had an incident. About 2 wks ago had my small kayak out, didn’t see the manatee, but it bucked my kayak and then tail slapped my right side. Found myself sitting in about 6 inches of water, but still upright. Thought I must have come across a mating couple or one protecting their young. Been out several times since then and seen manatee but no event until yesterday. Was in my small daysailer, sort of like a small canoe with a sail. Was drifting along watching the sunset when something bucked up the back of the boat then tail slapped the side again. Got a good look at the tail and the manatee this time and it was the biggest one I’ve seen. It swam about 20 yards away and looked back at me then came toward me. I headed away from it toward shore, he followed for a bit then disappeared under the water again.
    Been kayaking and sailing that area for 15 years and this is a first for me.
    Pretty scary when you consider that they have probably been startled, so are you, and if you fall in the water with something that big it could turn out bad…even if they don’t mean to hurt you.
    Rule of tonnage…the big guy wins!

  16. so im 15 and i love to kayak in the morning.this morning i went out and on my way back i saw a manatee. i wasn’t really paying attention and i was so close to it.i was too close to try to back up,but then i realized there were two.the second got up underneath my kayak and carried me on a wave and was carried me a good 10 feet then set me down and disapeared.i just laughed i was so shocked people came out of there houses to see if i was alright.crazy huh?

  17. I had this happen to me this past week while Kayaking over in Bonita Springs Beach. If anyone ever came up a told me what to place I’d have think your smoking some petty good stuff, being that I have always swam with Mantees, and Kayaked with, and have been around them all my life with know issues, ever. I’m 58, and to date never saw or heard of this until this past week.
    I was just paddling along my wife about 50 to 100 feet behind me, and out of know where I’m riding on the back of the Beast being about a foot or so out of the water, and then it through me like I was nothing. I weight around 250,lbs my Kayak weighs around 60lbs.
    It was Nuts!!!


  18. Wow, I am not alone. Today in Yankeetown on the gulf coast I experienced a definite rush. While paddling in from fishing I saw a big nose surface on the top of the water. I thought it resembled a manatee. So I turned direction to give him room to go by. He was still 50 yards away. Then I continued in . All of a sudden I hear this amazing swish something just went under my kayak. I am up in the air still upright in my kayak surfing on a wave. I caught out of the corner of my eye this massive white water hole in the ocean. My heart was really pumping then! It took me a while to figure out what happened. I don’t know if it was the manatee that I saw or a trailing one that got me. I never saw it coming . I am astonished by the amount of power they have when they want to use it. Incredible!!

  19. Wow, great stories here. I wasn’t attacked but my kayaked was “hugged” by a manatee this past weekend at Ft Desoto. I was paddling in about 3 to 4 feet of water in Mullet Key Bayou when I spotted a lone manatee. I got around front of it and it surfaced for air and noticed me. I said “Hi buddy!” (or something like that) and it proceeds to swim under my kayak, very slowly but being careful not to actually touch the kayak. It’s about halfway under my boat when it turns on it’s back and I see it’s two flippers come up on the back of my kayak in what looks like a manatee hug! I’ve never seen a manatee do this before so it freaked me out! I immediately paddled away and felt the manatee kind of slip off he back of my boat. It left me alone after I paddled off, but wow, what an experience!

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