Manatees making annual migration to coastal waters for summer months

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Be on the lookout: one of Florida's great animal migrations is underway.

Manatees are moving from their inland, warm-water winter retreats to coastal bays and oceans for the summer. 

A tropical marine mammals that prefers water temperatures of 68 degrees and above, manatees can become more prone to sickness and disease when water temperatures get below that mark, as they typically do in the winter here. 

To combat the cold, manatees migrate to inland waters, where natural springs and water from power plants keep them warm.

"Manatees migrate to warmer-water habitat that they know in the fall and winter to help them survive winter’s cold," said Michelle Kerr, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Generally, manatees use freshwater springs and the outflow of power plants, which also can be found near the coast or inland." 

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Animal advocates say some manatees may stay in their winter holes longer this year due to a recent cold spell that brought unseasonably cool weather to Southwest Florida earlier this month. 

"In the winter time they're really going to be focused on staying warm," said Pat Rose, director of Save the Manatee Club. "We had a really cold front in early April, and it's been colder longer this year. We've had some as recent as last week at the power plants in Tampa bay and a few stragglers on the east coast." 

Locally, large groups of manatees are typically found in the Orange River outside Fort Myers. 

A manatee comes up for air at Manatee Park on Monday, March 22, 2021.

The Orange River is connected to a power plant that discharges warm water. 

"Warm-water sites typically have available food sources within distances that manatees travel to and return within a day," Kerr said. "Manatees have been documented traveling further to forage during warm weather periods during the winter and often travel shorter distances to forage during cold weather." 

The spa-like conditions attract hundreds of sea cows at a time during especially cold events. 

"I would expect there would be more than normal in the Orange River and the Caloosahatchee River, but they're already disbursing throughout Estero Bay," Rose said. "Really they're looking for forage now. There will be some spring mating activity, even though females come into their own individual cycles and not during a particular season." 

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Manatees photographed in the Orange River in east Fort Myers on January 15, 2021. The sea cows travel back and forth from the Gulf of Mexico and the estuary to feed on sea grasses.

So even though females go through their reproductive cycles at various times of the year, things seem to get little more heated in the spring. 

"People should look out for larger groups of males chasing females, and the females will sometimes time try to beach themselves," Rose said. 

Rose said boaters can help the species thrive by watching out for sea cows and by following posted speed zones and marked preserve areas. 

"The past three years we've set the record for boat-related deaths," Rose said. "Lee and Brevard are always the two top mortality counties, but Brevard is blowing it out the water this year." 

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Brevard is on pace to break the state record for manatee deaths in a year in that county alone as sea grass losses have caused hundreds of sea cows there to starve.  

FWC suggests boaters wear polarized sunglasses to better spot manatees; to look for large circular ripples on the water, also known as manatee footprints, and  to look for snouts. 

Kerr said anyone who spots an injured, distressed, sick or dead manatee should call the agency’s  wildlife hotline at 888-404-3922, or dial #FWC on a cell phone. 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.