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
Two snorkelers touching a manatee that is within sanctuary boundaries.
Snorkelers approach and touch a manatee in a designated sanctuary. This is one example of manatee harassment.

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:

  • Picking a manatee calf up out of the water[i]
  • Riding a manatee in shallow water[ii]
  • Splashing water on a herd of mating manatees[iii]
  • Spraying manatees with a hose and jumping on them[iv]
  • Trying to “catch” a manatee with a fishing hook, using grass and leaves as bait[v]
A photo of a manatee being given water with a red "No" symbol on the photo.
A manatee drinks water from a hose. Manatees get necessary fresh water from the plants they eat. Providing food or water to wild manatees is considered harassment, and it is against the law.

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
A photo showing a congregation of manatees in the protected sanctuary of Three Sisters Springs while several snorkelers and a kayaker are just outside the border of the refuge.
Snorkelers and a paddler approach manatees seeking sanctuary in Crystal River, FL. Humans should not enter designated manatee sanctuaries for any reason.

Watch Educational Videos

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.

A drone photo of a boat with three people on it. One of the people is poking a manatee with a fishing rod.
An individual aboard a boat pokes a manatee. Any action that could cause harm to a manatee or alter its natural behavior—such as this one—is harassment, and it is punishable by law.

Manatee Harassment FAQs

How can interacting with manatees be harmful to them? If they don’t like it, they can swim away.

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.

What is wrong with feeding manatees or giving them water?

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.

I’ve heard there may not be enough natural seagrass for manatees. I need to feed them to help them survive.

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.

Isn’t the best way for people to appreciate manatees to see them up close and personal?

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.

Why is it so bad if a mother and calf get separated?

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.

I saw a large group of manatees playing together in the water. It looked so fun, I wanted to join in myself! Can I?

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 have gone swimming with manatees, and some of them come right up to me and roll over to have their bellies scratched. They enjoy it.


[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.