Manatees are so full of blubbery charisma it's hard not to love them, even when they're being downright cheeky.

A Florida family recently shared a close encounter with a group of manatees while enjoying the surf in the Fort Pierce Inlet area. The Blais family with their 11-year-old twin boys, Logan and Evan, were surfing when they were approached by four curious sea cows. Two of the chunky herbivores swam off while the remaining pair stayed behind to investigate the twins and their surfboards.

The family’s GoPro captured the interaction which was later posted on Facebook by the twin's parents, Lisa and Brandon Blais. The clip shows a manatee close to Evan and his surfboard. As it neared, Evan lost his nerve and abandoned the board, which the manatee quickly claimed with its floppy flipper. With the surfboard under its forelimb, the manatee started to swim away while Evan watched on, giggling nervously.

Lucky for the Blais family, the surfboard was returned and the close encounter was a friendly one. Manatees are generally docile creatures and don’t have a bad reputation when it comes to interactions with humans.

These 500-kilogram (1100-pound) herbivores are fairly common residents in Florida’s salt and freshwater areas, however, their numbers have drastically declined in recent years primarily as a result of pollution that has negatively impacted the seagrass ecosystems on which they depend. So far this year, 631 manatees deaths have been recorded, a reduction from last year, but still the fourth highest death toll documented since records began nearly half a century ago. 

Cold weather also played a role in the sudden deaths of manatees in the 2020/21 winter, with already starving animals unable to tolerate chilly conditions. State and federal authorities are expected to repeat emergency feeding programmes that were put in place last year to assist the struggling sea cows. It's unclear when (or if) their seagrass habitats will recover.

Although sea cows are known to be gentle giants, it is not advisable to touch or feed them (aside from state-sanctioned feeding programmes) as this may lead to habituation and human-animal conflict over time. As for Logan, Evan, and the rest of the Blais family, it was a surf outing they’ll never forget.