Manatees are on the Move Here, Can Be Seen from Shore

By Lauri deGaris

Recently, I spotted several manatees in the Amelia River. It is spring, and the West Indian manatee is on the move in Florida. It is common to see manatees in our region, especially from spring to late fall. Often, manatees can be viewed from the city of Fernandina marina and waterfront park.

The West Indian manatee belongs to the order of Sirenia and is believed to have evolved from a wading, plant-eating animal. It is related to other manatees found around the globe, including the Amazonian manatee, the dugong, and Steller’s sea cow. Steller’s sea cow has been hunted into extinction.

Manatees in Florida are protected by two federal laws. They include the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Also, they are protected statewide under the Florida Manatee and Sanctuary Act.

The West Indian manatee faces substantial and intensifying threats across the state of Florida and Puerto Rico. In 2017, it was downlisted from an endangered species to a threatened species. This change in status was deemed premature by several organizations including Save the Manatee Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife. These organizations have filed a federal lawsuit to have the manatee re-listed as an endangered species.

Based on the latest population survey for manatees in Florida, FWC estimates that there are between 8,350 to 11,350 manatees in Florida. The 2021-2022 Statewide Abundance Model estimates the Florida manatee population to be 9,790, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute Technical Report No. 27.

It is very difficult to count manatees. Challenges include the widespread distribution of these gentle giants. The large extent of coastal and freshwater habitats makes it almost impractical to count by aerial survey. Many times, manatees are far below the surface of the water. And, if the water clarity is poor, they may not be seen by observers.

In 2020, an unusual manatee mortality event began in Florida for manatees. Manatee deaths spiked due to the continuous destruction of the coastal, seagrass, and warm-water habitats upon which they depend. Boat strikes, poaching, marine debris, chemical contaminants, invasive species, and toxic algae blooms also present survival challenges for the Florida manatee.

The unusual manatee mortality event mainly occurred in the Indian River Lagoon in Volusia County from seagrass die-off. More than 1,000 manatee deaths have occurred each year since the event began. However, this year the number of deaths is decreasing as the seagrass beds are coming back in the Indian River Lagoon region, according to FWC. The manatees are no longer looking emaciated and there is hope that this event will end soon.

An emaciated manatee from the Indian River Lagoon. Photo courtesy of FWC.

The Florida manatee population is divided into four management units. They included the Northwest, Upper St. Johns River, Atlantic and Southwest. Ana Nadar, who works for FWC, is the lead aerial survey observer for the Upper St. Johns and Atlantic manatee populations. Ana also is one of three amazing women who make up the FWC marine mammal response team for Northeast Florida.

The marine mammal response team for Northeast Florida is activated each time a call is received about a marine mammal in distress in the 11-county region. There are four field stations and one pathology lab for manatees throughout the state of Florida.

Northeast Florida has unique habitat challenges that affect the manatee. In the winter, manatees can become hypothermic when the water temperature drops below 68 degrees. In the summer, environmental exposure can cause heat stress in manatees as the water temperature heats up above 85 degrees.

In 2023, this manatee (pictured below) was discovered in the mud near the Jacksonville Jaguars stadium. The water temperature was 60 degrees, which caused this manatee to suffer and eventually die from cold-related stress.

An example of a heat stress-related event for manatees occurred in May of 2023. A focal female manatee, part of a mating herd, became exhausted and stranded herself in the mud. High temperatures that day caused heat stress and the female did not survive.

Manatees suffer from entanglements just like whales and dolphins. FWC and their partners ask all well-intentioned individuals not to try to remove the entanglement from any marine mammal. Many times, a tug on the gear can cause additional damage, making it more difficult to remove the gear for the rescue team. If you see a marine mammal entangled in gear, please note the animal’s location and time of sighting. Then call the FWC hotline for help at 1-888-404-3922.

Manatees are mammals. They must come to the surface of the water to breathe. Many manatees suffer from the effect of blunt force trauma from vessel strikes by simply coming up for a breath of air. Blunt force trauma from a vessel strike is more damaging than lacerations from a vessel propeller.

Ana showed me several rib bones from manatees that were struck by a vessel. The bones had been broken but managed to heal over time. Manatee bones, like those of their distant cousins the elephant, are very dense and heavy. When new bone growth heals over existing bone, it is called remodeling. Remodeling can become excessive if many bones are broken. This increases the weight of the manatee skeleton significantly.

Manatee rib bones. The rib bones on the right have never been broken. The rib bones on the left are attached to the spine and have extensive remodeling after a vessel strike.

Several manatees have been outfitted with satellite tags to track their movement and help researchers better understand them. Officials ask that if you see a manatee with a buoy and tether attached to its tail, please do not try to remove the belt around the tail. There have been several cases were people thought the belt and buoy were entanglements and removed them only to discover it was a satellite tag. You can see the location of tagged manatees in Florida by visiting the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute website. There are at least a dozen tagged manatees on the east coast of Florida at this time.

Ways you can help manatees:

Call FWC’s Wildlife Alert toll-free number: 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922) or #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone or text 847411 with keyword “FWC,” followed by the city and/or county and any information if you see a sick, injured, dead or tagged manatee.

Boaters will find them easier to spot if they wear polarized sunglasses and keep a lookout for signs of manatees such as the circular “footprints” they trace on the top of the water or their snouts sticking up out of the water.

Look, but don’t touch manatees. Keep your distance when boating, even if you are steering a canoe, kayak or paddleboard. Be a good role model for others so that they learn how to watch and enjoy manatees without disturbing the animals.

The plate you buy matters; support FWC manatee rescues and research. Next time you renew your tag, consider a “Save the Manatee” license plate.

Show your support for manatee conservation by proudly displaying a manatee decal. These high-quality stickers feature original artwork and are available from your local tax collector’s office with a $5 donation.

Related Links:

Save the Manatee Club

Manatee Mortality Statistics

Manatee Population Information

Manatee Habitat Restoration Projects

The Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP)

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Mark Tomes
Active Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
10 days ago

Thanks for this timely article on the natural history of manatees and the dangers to them. Just a couple of days ago, there were reports of a dozen or so manatees hanging around the pilings at the Sandbar restaurant.

Rich Polk
Member
Rich Polk(@rich-polk)
8 days ago

I saw a small juvenile manatee while kayaking recently at Holly Point. These animals are facing extinction from human activity. Please pay attention when operating powerboats. Be good.

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