​Manatees traveling to warmer waters

A manatee swims along as it takes refuge on Jan. 15, 2019, with hundreds of other manatees in the warmer spring water at Blue Springs State Park in Orange City.

As Florida’s air shifts from hot and humid to cool and dry, residents welcome the ocean’s giant gray sea cows to the springs. And now is the time to recognize them. November is Manatee Awareness Month, a designation that times with the period when manatees begin to retreat from coastal waters into their warm-water safe havens, like springs and power plant discharges. The need to conserve manatees, Florida’s official state marine mammal, continues as threats to their survival persist. A higher number of manatees — 488 from January to October this year — died compared to deaths in the same period in 2019, though fewer were the result of boating collisions, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

A keystone species

Floridians are passionate about manatees because they’re one of the state’s most unique creatures — and also one of its most imperiled.

They’re federally protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, though they were reclassified from endangered to threatened in 2017.

Even though manatees’ federal protections date back to only 1966, they’ve been protected by state law since 1893, according to FWC. That’s when Florida passed the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, which made it illegal to harass, disturb or kill manatees.

Despite the long standing protections, manatees continue enduring a range of threats, including watercraft collisions and the loss of warm water habitats.

Reducing boating crashes

Watercraft collisions are one of the leading causes of death for Florida’s manatees in the wild, according to FWC data.

The data showed each year from 2017-19 had a record number of watercraft collision fatalities, said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. The group is a nonprofit founded by former Florida Gov. Bob Graham and musician Jimmy Buffett to support the protection of manatees and their habitats.

There won’t be a new record in 2020. The 70 manatee deaths from watercraft collisions that FWC recorded in 2020 is far below the same period in each of the last four years, FWC data showed.

However, it doesn’t necessarily mean fewer manatees are dying in boating accidents, Rose said.

It’s most likely because fewer causes of manatee deaths are accounted for in FWC’s data for 2020, he said. This is because the agency’s staff picked up fewer manatee carcasses for necropsies, a process that identifies an animal’s cause of death, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We understand there’s only so much they could do in catching up with the necropsies,” Rose said.

Rose’s nonprofit remains an important part of education and outreach efforts urging motor boaters to operate their vessels responsibly and to use caution in manatee speed zones.

“The majority of boaters are caring and understanding (of manatees),” he said. “How they operate their boats and the speed can make a difference in manatees’ survival.”

One thing the Save the Manatee Club is pushing for is making the state’s boating safety education requirements mandatory for all boaters.

Currently, Florida law requires boaters who were born on or after Jan. 1, 1988, to have a Florida Boating Safety Education Identification Card to operate a boat with 10 horsepower or more. To get the card, they must take an eight-hour boating safety class, Rose said.

The nonprofit supports the law changing to require older boaters to take the class, too.

Keeping manatees warm

While humans cause a large number of manatee deaths, Mother Nature also can make survival difficult for this species.

Manatees cannot live in waters with temperatures below 68 degrees because their minimal body fat and low metabolism make them sensitive to cold stress, according to the Save the Manatee Club.

That’s why springs protection is an important component of conserving manatee populations. The waters in these warm refuges are a constant 72 degrees.

It’s more important today to protect the springs as artificial warm water refuges, like power plant discharges, are phased out, Rose said.

One of the state’s most critical manatee refuges is Blue Spring State Park in Volusia County, where hundreds of manatees gather in the winter to escape the chilly ocean temperatures.

Not much manatee migration is happening right now at Blue Spring because the cooler air temperatures in recent days haven’t yet given way to temperature drops in the water, said Darrell Thomas, a park services specialist at the state park.

But that should change soon. Blue Spring traditionally closes its spring run on Nov. 15, which is the official start of the manatee migration season, he said.

Mid-November is typically when the water temperatures start to cool down enough for manatees to seek warm water refuges, Thomas said.

He thinks Blue Spring draws so many manatees because they’re creatures of habit and learn when they’re young to find warm water in the winter months, he said.

“When they’re young, their parents will take them around to show them where they need to go for food and refuge,” Thomas said. “They’ve been taught to come here.”

Blue Spring captured nationwide and statewide interest when the famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau filmed an episode of his television series “The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau” there, calling attention to the spring’s winter manatee population.

The park now draws about 20,000-30,000 visitors during manatee season, Thomas said.

“We like to say our efforts here have helped preserve the manatee population and restore it to a larger number in this area,” he said, crediting park-wide education initiatives aimed at informing the public on manatee behavior.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.