Manatees moving toward coastal areas in Southwest Florida

Chad Gillis
The News-Press

Manatees are moving to coastal areas as water temperatures rise, and they're gathering in large breeding herds at local beaches. 

"During mating season you may see what’s called a mating herd, and that’s a group of manatees and most likely there are multiple males trying to mate with one female," said Michelle Kerr, with the Florida Wildlife Research Institute.

Manatees are the official state marine mammal and can grow to 14 feet in length and weigh upward of 3,500 pounds. 

Scientists: 6,620 manatees in Florida waters

Sometimes called sea cows, manatees are sub-tropical marine mammals that feed on seagrasses and need warm waters to survive. Their immune systems start to shut down when water temperatures get to 68 degrees and below.

Jim Griffiths, a local boater and publisher of boating magazine Nautical Mile, said the manatees have mostly made their summer migration to the coast. 

He gives them plenty of space. 

"It's pretty normal for this time of year," Griffiths said. "You see them up and down the coast this time of year. But I stay away from them, and I think they can really hurt you because a manatee is a powerful creature."

Manatees are listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which proposed last year to lower the animal's protected status after years of legal battles with boating and property rights interests.

Two manatees were released back to the wild by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Lowry Park Zoo staff at Orange Harbor Mobile Home and RV Park boat ramp on Tuesday. Both manatees recovered at Lowry Park Zoo from boat strikes.  A crowd of people was on hand to watch. Rescuers of one of the manatees, Bob Wasno and former News-Press environmental reporter were on hand to send off the manatees as well.  FWC crews also went over to Manatee Park to try a rescue on an injured manatee. As of 5 p.m., the manatee had not been rescued.

They spend much of the winter hidden away in warm-water retreats like the Orange River, which is connected to the Caloosahatchee River and is warmed by a nearby Florida Power & Light station. 

Scientists: 6,620 manatees in Florida waters

But they spend summer roaming the coasts, eating sea grasses and looking for potential mates. 

"Around this time of year we get calls about potentially stranded manatees" Kerr said, "but a lot of time the female will climb out of the water to get away from the group of males." 

The herds may stay in the same general area for days, as the males swarm the female. 

People should avoid these herds, Kerr said. 

"It’s illegal to touch a manatee, so look but don’t touch," Kerr said. "Never feed a manatee or give them water. Do no chase a manatee and definitely give a herd or a manatee a lot of space because they are big, heavy, powerful animals."

Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Facebook. 

By the numbers

10 million: estimated cost, in dollars, to recover manatee population

1893: Year Florida banned killing manatees

59: Maximum age recorded

3,500: Pounds in weight for extremely large males

4,082: Deaths documented between 1976 and 2000

— Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission