If you see a manatee that is being harassed, or encounter a dead, injured, tagged, or orphaned manatee calf, please immediately report it to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) by calling 1-888-404-3922. Outside of Florida, please make a report with your local wildlife agency or stranding network.
Despite their docile appearance, it is important to recognize that manatees are wild animals. Any contact with humans—even those who are well-intentioned—could injure them or alter their natural behavior. This is manatee harassment, and it is punishable by law.
What is harassment?
Harassment is any action that could cause harm to a manatee or alter its natural behavior. There are two types of harassment. Drastic harassment is a one-time, major event like riding a manatee or separating a mother and calf, which can injure or otherwise cause harm. Cumulative harassment occurs over time, as when repeated disturbances (such as those by large and/or frequent “swim with the manatees” tour groups) cause a resting manatee to move repeatedly to avoid human contact. This can cause a manatee to use excess energy or even to leave a particular area altogether.
Some examples of harassment include:
- Giving food or water to manatees, or using food or water to attract manatees
- Disturbing resting manatees
- Hitting, jumping on, standing on, holding on to, or attempting to ride a manatee
- Separating a mother and calf
- Disturbing manatee mating herds
- Pursuing or chasing manatees either while swimming or while in a vessel
- Blocking a manatee’s path
- Fishing for or attempting to hook or catch a manatee
It's The Law
Manatees are protected under federal law by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. These laws make it illegal to harass, harm, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal. Manatees are also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which defines harassment as “any intentional or negligent act or omission which creates the likelihood of causing an injury to a manatee by annoying it to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns which include, breeding, feeding or sheltering.” Penalties for first-time violations of these laws can include fines of up to $500 and/or imprisonment for up to 60 days.
Examples of incidents of manatee harassment that have led to arrest include:
How To Mind Your Manatee Manners
Please follow these guidelines anytime you encounter wild manatees:
- Look but don’t touch. Practice “passive observation” and observe manatees from above water and at a distance
- Do not feed manatees or give them water
- Avoid excess noise and splashing
- Do not chase or block the path of traveling manatees
- Never separate a mother and calf
- Do not enter designated manatee sanctuaries for any reason
- When paddling, stay two kayak lengths away from a manatee
- When encountering a manatee while in the water, stay one human body length away
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What To Do If You See A Manatee Being Harassed
REPORT: If you see a manatee that is being harassed, or encounter photo or videos online that show manatee harassment, please immediately report it to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) by calling 1-800-404-FWCC (3922). Outside of Florida, please make a report with your local wildlife agency or stranding network.
DOCUMENT: Many individuals who have faced legal consequences for harassing manatees have been arrested after video or photo evidence was provided by onlookers or discovered online. If you see someone harassing a manatee and it is safe to do so, document the activity by taking photos or video.
Manatee Harassment FAQs
Disturbance from human activity can cause manatees to leave a safe area, putting them in harm’s way from cold exposure or nearby boat vessel traffic. Disturbance can also cause manatees to expend precious energy moving around to avoid contact or interaction with humans. This is particularly relevant when manatees have congregated in a warm water habitat or a designated manatee sanctuary.
Feeding manatees or giving them water is against the law. Doing so can result in behavior modification and changes to their natural feeding patterns, or they may be fed items that are not part of their natural diet. Manatees are skilled at finding sources of fresh water as they travel and do not need supplemental water from humans. Feeding or giving water to manatees may also lead them to lose their fear of humans. “Tamed” manatees may approach a boat expecting food or water, only to be injured or killed by a propeller or become entangled in fishing gear. Manatees also sometimes like to feed on the vegetation that gets wrapped around the boat’s propeller. Before starting the engine, always check around your boat for manatees.
Feeding manatees or giving them water is against the law. In most areas in which manatees are found, there is enough vegetation to sustain a healthy manatee population. In addition to seagrass, manatees also eat other submerged, floating, and emergent plants. Decline of aquatic vegetation has led to an unusual number of manatee deaths in and around the Indian River Lagoon, on Florida’s east coast. In response, a supplemental feeding program trial was conducted with the required permits by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The program was designed and monitored by wildlife experts to limit manatees’ exposure to humans and taking into account their dietary needs. It was also designed to create little disturbance in the surrounding ecosystem. Even in this area, it is still illegal for individuals to feed or give water to manatees.
The best way to appreciate manatees is from a respectful distance. Natural manatee behavior can be disrupted by humans who approach manatees too closely. Observing manatees at a distance provides the best opportunity to observe their natural behaviors.
Manatee calves are dependent on their mothers for up to two years. Not only do mothers feed their calves, but they also teach them essential survival skills. Calves that are separated from their mothers may not be reunited. For example, if a mother swims away while a calf is being petted, the calf may not find its way back to her. Manatee calves cannot survive on their own.
This type of behavior is typical of manatee mating herds. It can be quite dramatic with lots of movement and splashing, especially if it takes place in shallow water. This activity can attract people who are either curious about what’s going on or concerned that the manatees are injured, stranded, or in distress. However, it is important to observe this natural behavior from a respectful distance. Any disturbances may disrupt this the mating herd and jeopardize the reproductive cycle. Additionally, adult manatees are large, powerful creatures. It can be dangerous to approach or interfere with a mating herd.
[i] “Ryan Waterman, Fla. Man, arrested for allegedly harassing a manatee.” CBS News, 19 Feb. 2013, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ryan-waterman-fla-man-arrested-for-allegedly-harassing-a-manatee/. Accessed 29 Aug. 2022.
[ii] “Woman who rode manatee at Fort De Soto turns herself in.” Tampa Bay Times, 2 Oct. 2012, https://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/crime/woman-who-rode-manatee-at-fort-de-soto-turns-herself-in/1254405/. Accessed 29 Aug. 2022.
[iii] Suarez Sang, Lucia I. “Florida man splashes water at manatees, lands in jail.” Fox News, 1 May 2018. https://www.foxnews.com/us/florida-man-splashes-water-at-manatees-lands-in-jail. Accessed 29 Aug. 2022.
[iv] Joseph, Chris. “Florida men who cannonballed onto manatees and posted it on YouTube sentenced.” Broward Palm Beach New Times. 20 Jun. 2014. https://www.browardpalmbeach.com/news/florida-men-who-cannonballed-onto-manatees-and-posted-it-on-youtube-sentenced-6464495. Accessed 29 Aug. 2022.
[v] “One day of fishing, 30 days in prison.” Soundings, 6 May 2008. https://www.soundingsonline.com/news/one-day-of-fishing-30-days-in-prison. Accessed 29 Aug. 2022.