Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Florida's Gentle Giants

Florida's living legacy is a gentle giant of a fresh-water leviathan. The manatee, locally called "sea cows" are struggling for survival due to habitat destruction, boat-impeller injuries, and dredging. And if life wasn't tough enough for these already endangered animals, the extended cold snap in Florida has contributed to over 70 deaths in the last month alone.

We scoured the regular locations in the coastal regions but the manatees were no longer there due to the water temperatures. Manatee historically ride out cold weather snaps in warmer- fresh water fed springs. Fellow birder and RRI Energy rep, Bill Baker had generously opened tours for Space Coast birders to witness manatees gathered at the warm-water out-flows of their power plants (just like the winter gulls in Cleveland!)

Unfortunately, that did not fit within our schedule, so we were forced to travel an hour north of Orlando to witness the gathering at Blue Springs.

The trip to Blue Springs did not disappoint! The crystal clear water and evergreen vegetation was a a stark contrast to the murky black waters oft the St. James cypress swamp. Manatees were lined up along the banks by the hundreds! Note the big gray masses in the water, it's our 1000 pound manatees at the winter spa! It must take a lot of leafy-greens to keep a herd this size fed. For more general West Indian Manatee info -click here-.

Occasionally, one would swim past the viewing deck where the manatee fans had gathered. This youngster, probably a mere 400-500 lbs, bore large white gashes on his tail- scars remaining from massive injuries this calf must have suffered. Power-boats and manatees do not mix... and the slow moving manatees are the big losers. "No wake" zones and speed reduction laws have been passed in an effort to protect this declining species, and all manatees seen in zoos and aquaria are on a rehab from some injury or other. When they heal and are deemed worthy of release- they are shipped back to Florida for release in the wild. Cincinnati Zoo has a manatee scheduled for release later this month (Lindsey, the zoo keeper, is a close family friend.)

Playful, gentle, sweet- the most apt words to describe these giants. Pictured rolling in the waters, it was fascinating to watch the interaction between the manatees and the plecostomus (algae eating fish) who seemed to enjoy catching a ride, and a snack, on the manatee's backs.

How about a big kiss? Easy to love, and yet in heart-breaking danger. Manatee studies have indicated they are headed towards extinction if any more than 17 manatee deaths occur in a given year. Last count I read, over 100 deaths had already occurred this year, and the cold-water pneumonia is likely to take its worst tolls in the coming week.
Daughter JJ has several rescue manatees at Seaquarium in Miami and I'll try to follow their progress. Let's hope they are able to be released to the wilds again.


  1. Your manatee pictures are beautiful mom! Then again, all your Florida pictures are beautiful.

  2. We only have 1 manatee, Slip, set for release this month (which I am hopefully helping with). He is actually being released into Blue Springs. In total, Cincy Zoo has helped release 6 manatees. Not all manatee in US zoos and aquariums are rehab, but almost all are. There are a handful left from the days when they were bred in captivity or captured as youngsters. These inlude Snooty, the world's oldest manatee, who lives in Bradenton, FL.

    The statistic of only 17 manatees dying per year placing them in risk of extiction is just for "unnatural" deaths. This is always surpassed by boat strikes.

    In happier news, the population count hit a record this year. 5,067 manatees were counted during aerial surveys.

    If you want anymore info on the sea cows, feel free to let me know.


  3. Lindsey-
    Thanks for checking in- and setting the record straight! It was especially interesting to learn about Snooty!

    Wishing your "little" rehaber well at Blue Springs- it is so beautiful- he is bound to be happy there.

  4. The manatee saga tugs at the heartstrings. I'm just glad there are people who are trying to help them. Thanks for bringing this to our attention and for sharing your photos.