It’s been a tough year for Florida manatees. Red tide and cold snaps have led to their highest death rate since 2013, and that death rate could still go up.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Ron Mezich says during winter, manatees have to migrate to warmer waters, like springs, and even thermal-polluting power plants, to avoid freezing to death. During those moves, manatees are more vulnerable to being killed by boats. But Mezich says vigilant boaters can protect the species.
“Manatees leave a sign, when they’re swimming along. They leave what we call a ‘tail sign’ which is basically circular patterns on the water which will tell you which way they’re swimming and where they are. And then they’ll come up for breath occasionally. And you have to be really aware, because it looks like a coconut floating on the water. They just stick their nose up, with two little nostrils sticking up, they take a breath, then they go back down,” Mezich says.
Mezich recommends boaters drive slow, wear polarized sunglasses, and observe the animals from a distance. He says more than 150 manatees died this year due to red tide alone.
“So that’s been a big pressure on the population down there, and then last winter was a pretty hard winter. Again, we had somewhere, 70 or 80 manatee deaths due to cold weather. So, when you get both of those in one year, our numbers are going to be higher than typically what we see,” he says.
Mezich says without manatees’ foraging habits, ecosystems across the state would weaken. November is Manatee Awareness Month.