Manatees Are Known as Sea Cows Because of Their Diet
These mammals are vegetarians.
When the Spanish and Portuguese invaded islands controlled by the Caribs, they also adopted the word "manati" but apparently thought it meant "with hands."
Not an unnatural interpretation since a manatee's front flippers are important for feeding, and (along with the tail) instrumental for steering while swimming. They also nicknamed it "sea cow" because of its preference for plants.
In the wild, manatees have no natural enemies, and not because of their impressive size. A fully-grown adult manatee may be as long as 12-14 feet and weigh over 2,000 pounds.
Despite its formidable appearance, the manatee is completely defenseless. It has no weapons with which to attack or retaliate. Its teeth are used for grazing on submerged grasses and floating plants.
The manatee's vaguely human-like face is sometimes described as one only a mother could love. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how sailors ever mistook a manatee for a beautiful woman.
The face is not one you could fall in love with unless you'd been at sea for a very long time. If a manatee looks at all like a woman, it would have to be a very old and wrinkled one badly in need of a facelift.
A manatee's face seems always without expression, except when the animal yawns or readies to eat. Then it opens its wide jowls, sometimes flapping them. The rest of its stuffed-sausage body doesn't resemble the classic mermaid form, either.
Yet as with most legends, there is some basis for linking manatees with mermaids. When a manatee feeds, it will sometimes bob on the surface, using its flippers to grasp the vegetation and bring it toward its mouth.
When startled in such a position, a manatee will dive head-first, its great tail almost breaking the surface as it sounds. Thus the creature appeared to have a woman's head and the tail of a fish.
Despite the manatee's unglamorous appearance, there is still something majestic, almost regal, in the way these unusual animals move and act. They move slowly, never appearing to be hurried. But with several flips of their tail, they can outdistance the fastest swimmer, traveling 21 feet in a single second.