All In The Flip of a Manatee’s Tail

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Fifteen to twenty miles per hour, that’s the approximate burst speed of our Florida manatees. Usually they saunter along up to 5mph, but with that powerful tail they can really turn on the speed. Here’s another in my series of telling stories and data behind recent manatee images.

A manatee’s paddle-like tail is lit with warm sunlight. This manatee is relaxed and slowly sauntering but it can reach speeds up to 20 mph. Image from March 2018, Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River, Florida.

In comparison, other ocean friends can move along pretty quickly too. Octopus can exceed 25 mph,dolphins regularly hit over 18 mph, bluefin tuna swim at an astounding 43 mph and sea lions reach 25 mph underwater.

Topside, roadrunners top out at 20 mph and coyotes can exceed 40 mph. Cheetah do 75 mph and pronghorn reach 60 mph. The fastest mammal is the Mexican free-tailed bat, routinely reaching speeds of 100 mph. And the fastest bird is the peregrine falcon, capable of reaching speeds, while diving towards prey, well in excess of 180 mph but they usually fly straight at 60 mph tops.

Yes indeed, interesting animal speed demon statistics! But we are talking about manatees here. From my observation they usually fall into the usual sauntering speed of less-than 5 mph. That’s a big body manatees have so why waste energy maxing it out?

Some of the fastest manatee movement I’ve witnessed (and it’s quite dramatic!) is when warm water wintering areas are very shallow with moms and babies sheltering together. Sometimes an inexperienced, young and seemingly uncouth male manatee’s behavior will panic a number of other manatees causing a kind of “sea cow stampede”. The mothers are concerned with protecting their calves above all. The movement consists of loud squeals and powerful tail slaps as numbers flee. Their mph speed probably gets right up there at this time. But manatee flight is short and usually they are back resting within a few minutes. Thank goodness manatees are relatively calm and incidents of things inducing panic are uncommon.

But that powerful paddle tail is there if they need to use it! When they need to they won’t be shy and will “move it, move it”! Blue whales cruise at 14 mph and top out at 30 mph, so the manatee is no slouch at 20 mph tops!

Just some more interesting and fascinating manatee data.

Next time I’ll tell the whole story of the manatee photograph currently hanging in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History as part of the Nature’s Best Photography exhibit. Open now.

Later, Carol