We had a long conversation discussing the laws, rules, and logic around the way Manatees are being interacted with in the local waters. Not only by kayakers but divers and swimmers as well. Matt’s “hands off” approach to the Manatees and reasons for it gave me a different perspective to how the animals should be viewed and my own actions when I was with the Manatees yesterday.
Despite what the differing laws that federal and state agencies have come up with regarding how people should deal with manatees, we need to consider the long term effects close human contact (touching) the manatees may have. The real reason the manatees yesterday approached our boats was not so much curiosity (they’ve seen PLENTY of kayaks) nor was it to get their forehead rubbed. They were looking for handouts. Feeding manatees is, most definitely, illegal but people still sneak cabbage and other leafy foods out to where the animals are found. While we were not breaking the law by “harassing” the manatees outright, what we are doing by interacting with them when they approach our kayaks (or other boats) is reinforce that behavior. Through that reinforcement the manatees start to associate all boats and people with food (or any other positive reinforcement for that matter). This association and propensity of manatees to now approach boats (and boat lanes) is being attributed to more of them being hit by boats.
So our simple action of petting a manatee, while they do seem to like it, can actually harm them in the long run. The simple fact is they are wild animals and as such need to stay wild in order to survive. Just because we legally can touch them doesn’t mean we should. My experience with them yesterday would have been no less magical if I had refrained from touching them and kept a polite distance. I’ve observed several whales and countless seals and sea lions from hundreds of yards away and those experiences have been just as amazing. So please, if you do get a chance to visit this area and paddle with the manatees, consider the long term health of the animals and look but don’t touch.