November is Manatee Awareness Month, a time when these gentle giants of Florida’s waterways move to warmer waters in Florida. Manatees are also known as sea cows but are more of a distant relative of the elephant. They usually travel in small groups through the shallow coastal waters in search of their favorite herbaceous diet.
As swimmers, manatees are very graceful, though they can weigh up to 1300 pounds and measure up to 13 feet long. “They move like a dolphin in slow motion,” said Patrick Rose, an Aquatic Biologist and Executive Director of the Save the Manatee Club. But they can also reach a speed of 15 miles an hour in short burst.
According to Rose, in Florida’s aquatic highways, “even the big 12-foot alligator will give way to the manatee.” What does the manatee do? If a manatee wants to get through, it swims up to gators in its way and bumps or nudges them to move.
Unfortunately, the same tactic doesn’t work with motorboats according to Rose. Although 18 Florida counties have manatee protection zones prohibiting boat access or requiring boaters to slow down, watercraft collisions are a major threat to the manatee’s survival year after year.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), it is uncommon to find a manatee in the wild today that has not come within an inch of its life having been hit by a boat propeller.
Manatees face threats of collisions with boats, habitat loss, cold stress, toxic effects of red tide and other harmful algal blooms, harassment and entanglement.
The winter season for manatees is in January and February for the most part. As the manatees swim south to stay warm, they end up in South Florida and around Marco Island waterways. They are also losing their warm weather habitats in Florida. Though cold–water exposure is not human–caused, pollution controlled red-tides and boat strikes are caused by humans.
Boaters can play a big role by slowing their boats down when in Manatee Zones and sharing the waterways with wildlife. FWC also encourages boaters to wear polaroid sunglasses to better see manatees.
Manatee Fatalities by Boat Strikes
- 2014: 69 watercraft mortalities
- 2015: 86
- 2016: 106*
- 2017: 111*
- 2018: 124*
- 2019: 136*
* Denotes a then all-time high
According to conservationists and manatee experts, how many more bad years can manatees endure before triggering a downward population trend. In 2018, cold weather added to the 2018 manatee loss with 72 cold stress deaths—triple those in each of the prior 4 years.
According to FWC data, fewer manatees died in 2019 compared with 2018, and manatee deaths decreased to 606 deaths last year, down from 824 in 2018. The main cause of the decline experts say is the reduced effect of red tide on manatees.
In 2019, twenty-one manatees died of red tide compared with 288 in 2018 according to Jaclyn Lopez, a spokeswoman for the Florida Center for Biological Diversity.
Manatee experts have stated it’s imperative to get the watercraft mortalities down in order to help keep the manatee population stable and offset the red tide and cold shock deaths.
Manatees are Florida’s official state marine mammal and are listed as threatened at the Federal and State level. They are protected by the Florida Marine Sanctuary Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and by the Endangered Species Act.
What to do when you see a Manatee stranded, injured, dead or beached?
Immediately report to FWC for assistance by calling FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline Number: 1-888-404-3922, press “7” for an operator, or from your cellphone, *FWC or #FWC. A quick call can mean survival for the manatees.