Few things in Southwest Florida elicit squeals and shrieks of delight from young and old alike – a dolphin’s exalted leap from the Gulf, a sensational sunset settling seemingly straight into the deep and the slow scintillating swim of the magnificent manatee!
State and Federal lay protect the Endangered West Indian manatee, Florida’s state marine mammal and the large aquatic relative of the elephant. The pectoral flipper has three to four vestigial fingernails, like an elephant, and both are herbivores. Manatees roam our waters from April through October, but when things get cold they head to places like freshwater springs and power plant outfalls where water temperatures remain warm and large groups of manatees gather.
Seeing a large number in one place is amazing but remember your manatee manners – look but do not touch because if they become accustomed to humans, this can cause them to lose their fear of boats and people, becoming more susceptible to harm. Passive observation is the best way to interact with manatees and all wildlife.
Manatees are grey or brownish-grey, with thick wrinkled skin. Their front flippers help them steer and sometimes crawl through shallow water, with a beaver-like tail to propel them. They live in the warm waters of shallow rivers, bays, estuaries and canals where seagrass flourish, and can survive in fresh and salt water of at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit. They are known for their gentle nature. They body surf and barrel roll when at play, while resting and feeding often, and communicate by squealing underwater to demonstrate fear, stress or excitement.
Typically 9 to 12 feet long and 1,000 to 1,800 pounds, with a life expectancy of 50 to 60 years, manatees are completely harmless and nonaggressive, often shy and reclusive, with a swimming speed of 3 to 5 miles-per-hour. They surface to breathe every few minutes, but can go up to 15 minutes between breaths when resting. Year-long pregnancies produce a single calf every 2 to 5 years that mostly nurses underwater. Of the 6.500 manatees in Florida, up from 1,300 in 1991, 300 to 450 die on average each year of old age, disease, boat strikes and failing calves.
Their Greatest Adversary – Us!
They face a number of mostly human-related survival threats, with watercraft collisions a major culprit. Habitat degradation is their greatest long-term threat, involving the loss of their warm-water sanctuaries. To help preserve manatees there are a few simple guidelines. Never feed manatees, use water to attract them, separate a mother from her calf, chase them from warm water, hit or poke them or ride on them. If a manatee avoids you, avoid it and never enter a manatee refuge.
Be alert while boating and obey low speed zones. Wear polarized sunglasses to reduce glare and look out for manatee snouts breaking the surface of the water or the swirl from a swimming tail. Stay in deep water channels, away from seagrass beds, and never approach a resting or feeding manatee.
Lee County in 2015 registered 60 manatee deaths, with 20 from watercraft, easily the highest of Florida’s 67 counties. As of October 21, 2016 already exceeds that at 64, and almost matches the watercraft count at 19. The State five-year mortality average is 424 manatees with 69 via watercraft, meaning Lee County’s marks of 110 deaths with 17 by watercraft accounts for one-quarter of those figures.
Red Tide, a naturally occurring algae bloom, is dangerous to manatees that contact it in the shallow water, inhale it when they breathe and ingest it when they eat. The toxins cause seizures that can prevent them from lifting their snouts above water to breathe, drowning them. 2013 was the deadliest year on record for manatees, when more than 830 died from a large red tide outbreak, with 276 in Lee County.
Locally, Lee County Manatee Park is one of the top 5-rated best locations to safely view manatees in Florida, with an annual visitation exceeding 200,000. It is a warm water refuge, with optimum viewing from late December through February. Opened in 1996, Lee County Parks & Recreation operates the 17-acre site on Florida Power & Light land. It is at 10901 State Route 80 / Palm Beach Boulevard; from I-75 use Exit 141 and go east 1.25-miles. Parking is $1/hour from April through November, $2 December to March, is ADA-accessible but does not permit pets. For information call 239-690-5030.
Report manatee collisions, as you will not be cited if you accidentally hit one while obeying speed zone restrictions and do so as soon as possible to increase the animal’s chance of survival, as injuries in many cases do not immediately kill them. To report manatee deaths, injuries, harassment, accidents or orphans, call the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission Alert number at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922). Or dial #FWC or *FWC on your cellphone, or text Tip@ My FWC.com.
They may be sea cows, but to many, manatees are the kings of the Gulf! Marvel at them from a safe distance and protect them from their greatest adversary – us!