Manatee, © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock

Move Slow for Manatees

Manatees, (c) Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic StockManatee Awareness Month is underway! And this week, the gentle giants begin their annual migration to warmer waters, where they’ll spend the winter months. Highly sensitive to cold, these marine mammals head for the heat once the thermometer drops below 50 degrees (68 degrees below the surface).

Florida manatees aren’t the only ones enjoying the south seas, and fast-moving boats continue to be a major threat to these endangered animals. 2010 was a deadly year for manatees, with a total of 83 killed in collisions with watercraft. This year promises to be equally unlucky, and by November 4, at least 77 of the animals had met a similar fate.

Fortunately, with manatee season comes safety measures. From now until March 31, when manatees return to their summer habitat, wintering hot spots such as those in Kings Bay, Florida (popular due to its naturally occurring warm water springs) are designated “manatee sanctuaries.” In these areas, many waterborne activities are prohibited, making them safer for the hundreds of manatees gathering there. Soon, these much-needed protections may get a boost — a rule being considered by the Fish and Wildlife Service would allow for national wildlife refuge managers to increase the size of the protected areas to accommodate manatees if need be, and make all of Kings Bay a manatee refuge.

To kick off manatee season, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others are hosting a public open house at Three Sisters Springs this Saturday. Three Sisters is one of seven manatee sanctuaries in Kings Bay, and the only place in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to view manatees from the land. Participants will have the chance to watch gathering manatees from the new boardwalk while hearing about what the future holds for Three Sisters Springs. (For Floridians looking for more information about the event, contact Ivan Vicente, US Fish and Wildlife Service, at 352-563-2088, ext. 211.)

In the meantime, there are lots of ways to reduce the risk of collisions with manatees. Boaters and personal watercraft operators should scan the water near or in front of their vessels and look for the signs that manatees are close by, including swirls resembling a large footprint, a repetitive line of half-moon swirls, a mud trail, or a snout or tail breaking the water’s surface. Remember to keep vessels in marked channels and wear polarized sunglasses for better viewing. Most importantly, always obey posted boat speed zones. Moving slow gives boaters and manatees alike more time to avoid one another, and may save one of these slow-moving mammal’s lives.

Learn more:

See manatees moving gracefully through their watery home! Watch video footage provided by our friends at the Save the Manatee Club.

Get more information about the proposed rules in Kings Bay and what they mean for manatees.