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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Marvelous, Magical Manatees!

Manatee and snorkeler in Florida

If you’ve ever cruised along the coast of Florida, you may have encountered a gentle giant. The Florida manatee, the official marine mammal of the state of Florida, is a large aquatic relative of the elephant and is found in freshwater rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters.

The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. They are grayish brown in color and have thick, wrinkled skin, much like their dry land cousins. Their front flippers help them steer, or sometimes crawl, through shallow water. They also have powerful, flat tails that help propel them through the water. Despite their small eyes and lack of outer ears, manatees are thought to see and hear quite well. Manatees are calm herbivores that spend most of their time eating, sleeping, and traveling.

In 1973, the manatee was placed on the endangered species list, hovering on the brink of extinction. At that time, only a few hundred manatees resided in the state. Today, thanks to conservation and humanitarian efforts, there are estimated to be over 6,300 manatees living in Florida’s waterways. In 2016, manatees were moved from the endangered species list to “threatened” status, which allows the population to continue its recovery while federal commitments to its protection are maintained.

Manatee Mom and Baby swimming in Florida

Manatee populations continue to face two long-standing, serious threats:  fatal collisions with watercraft, and the loss of warm-water habitats that provide them with refuge during the winter. (Manatees lack an insulating layer of fat, so water colder than about 70 degrees can kill them.)

A variety of efforts are being made to protect manatees and ensure their continued survival and population growth. One unique approach is the development of an audio alarm called “the Manatee Alerting Device,” which emits a low intensity, highly directional, narrow band of sound directly in front of approaching boats. The selected signal exploits the manatees' best hearing and localization abilities, and is only audible to manatees in the direct path of an approaching vessel. The alerting device is showing great promise in trial- without the alarm, 95 percent of the wild manatees tested did not change their behavior as the boat approached them. They did not respond or avoid the boat, and the boat was forced to veer away to avoid a dangerous collision. With the alarm, 95 percent of the manatees moved away from the oncoming vessel! Read more about the Manatee Alerting Device. 

Additionally, a number of rehabilitation facilities exist to help manatees injured by boats. Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo has a rehabilitate and release program, where manatees are nursed back to health. Recently, a severely injured manatee mother and her calf named Pascow and Cotee were rushed to the facility. The manatee mother’s tail was sliced open by a boat propeller, creating deep gashes. The pair were then rushed to the zoo’s David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center for medical attention and around-the-clock monitoring. They recovered quickly and were released back into the wild.

Swimming Florida Manatee

North Florida Ecological Services Office also supports a manatee rescue, rehabilitation and release program, with a goal of rescuing and treating sick or injured manatees, then releasing them back into waterways. The Office transfers injured animals to several different facilities: Lowry Park Zoo, Miami Seaquarium, and SeaWorld Florida. Following treatment, the manatees are transferred to other Program partner facilities for additional rehabilitation, while awaiting release. These include the Cincinnati Zoo, Columbus ZooEPCOT's The Seas, the South Florida Museum, and Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. 

You can help protect manatees! The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission offers a wildlife hotline and text line for boaters to report injured animals.  You can find these numbers and read about other ways that you can support manatees here.  Miami Seaquarium’s website also has helpful information on how you can contribute to the wellbeing of these amazing animals.

Keeping our waterways clean and free of trash also helps manatees and other sea life stay safe and healthy.  Join Sub Sea Systems, Inc. in the fight for trash free seas by participating in Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday September 16th. Over 12 million people have participated in this annual effort, cleaning up over 220 million pounds of trash. Click here for this year's event and activities.

Manatee Rescue