The Florida state marine mammal, the Florida Manatee, is a cousin to the elephant and weighs in around 1,200 lbs (550 kg). These gentle creatures are known for their curiosity and hefty appetite. Thanks to the nearly 100 lbs (45 kg) of vegetation each sea cow can consume daily, waterways, bays, and canals can remain clear of plant growth. During the winter, manatees make their way inland to warm springs. They become susceptible to diseases and cold stress if they remain in temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. During the summer, they can migrate up along the Carolina coastline and typically top out at 15 mph (24 kph).
The latest news is that a record high of over 6,000 Florida manatees have been spotted navigating the Florida wetland systems. 2015 had approximately 6,063, 2016 had 6,250 surveyed, and this past month recorded 6,620 individuals coasting along (3,488 on the East Coast and 3,132 along the West Coast). While scientists and conservationists are using aerial methods of surveying, these numbers are only an estimation and act as an indicator for populations overall. The take home message is that manatee numbers are doing much better now compared to the 1,267 recorded in 1991.
This number arrives at an interesting time. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is currently in debate about whether or not to move West Indian Manatees from an “endangered” to “threatened” classification. Cindy Dohner, the Southeast regional director for US Fish and Wildlife states, “The manatee’s recovery is incredibly encouraging and a great testament to the conservation actions of many. Today’s proposal is not only about recognizing this progress, but it’s also about recommitting ourselves to ensuring the manatee’s long-term success and recovery.”
Manatees can be found navigating through mangroves, estuaries, and warm springs in search of vegetation and warmth. Mangrove forests are present in the coastal channels and winding rivers around the tip of southern Florida (the term "mangrove" does not signify a particular botanical relation, but rather is used to identify several species of salt-tolerant trees that thrive amidst the harsh growing conditions of the coast). West Indian Manatees have no natural enemies because of their size. Scientists believe their average lifespan is around 60 years. Harmful algae blooms, habitat destruction, and climate change are all impeding the Florida manatee’s ability to resurge populations. One of the most difficult dangers to these gentle giants is boat strikes. Save the Manatee Club claims that 98 manatees were killed by watercraft last year. No wake zones, limited waterfront development, and designated manatee safe areas are all aspects contributing to their recovery.
While special interest groups debate about what may be best for the species and the community, the populations of manatee have come a long way, with a long path to full recovery still ahead. The Endangered Species Act defines an endangered species as one currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. On the other hand, a threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. Thankfully, Florida Manatees will still be protected under the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act (1978) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), and, for now, the Endangered Species Act (1973).
Hopefully you’ll be lucky enough to see one of these gentle, magnificent creatures in real life. Be sure to book your Florida Keys Snorkel Tour today!!
Written By: Emily Hauck