Manatees are inoffensive and lovably homely creatures. The rotund, plant-eating sea cows usually move pretty slowly, though they are strong swimmers and it’s really surprising how fast they are capable of moving when they are startled or when they are swimming against a strong current.
Most people, myself included, enjoy watching manatees. I am not sure how long it might take to lose interest in observing them since I have not yet reached that point after 45 years of being around them. I still stop fishing and watch for a while every time one of them comes around.
A great deal of publicity has been given to the fact that the number of manatee deaths in 2018 was very high, with more than 800 confirmed fatalities. In fact, only 2016 has ever had a higher count. This is cause for concern for sure.
But much less publicity has accompanied the recent release of a manatee population estimate which for the first time says that the population of manatees in Florida might now exceed 10,000 animals. This is a tremendous milestone, and might well represent the largest number of manatees that have ever lived in Florida.
How could that be possible? In some ways, Florida is probably more manatee-friendly now than ever before in history. There are more warm places for them to dodge the effects of potentially lethal cold weather than ever before, and we’re no longer hunting them for food nowadays.
However, this is pure conjecture, since we have no way of knowing how many manatees lived in Florida 100 or 500 or 1,000 years ago. Truth is, we don’t really have any way to know exactly how many manatees live here now, which is why that 10,000 number is an estimate.
Even though manatees are very large, some of them live in remote, overgrown areas where they are hard to find or even to see so it’s impossible to count every one of them. But we try to count as many as we can by taking advantage of the fact that manatees don’t like cold water.
When water temperatures plummet in the winter, most of Florida’s manatees gather together to try to keep warm in places where the water stays in their comfort zone. Some of these locations are in natural springs such as at Homassassa or at Crystal River. Others are at power plants where warm water is discharged, such as at the Fort Myers facility near the confluence of the Caloosahatchee and Orange rivers.
These locations are well documented, and since there aren’t too many of them, it’s possible to survey them all fairly quickly via aircraft overflights. If all these sites (21 of them statewide) are surveyed at about the same time every year, we have a way to gauge how the population of manatees changes from year to year.
When the surveys were first started in 1991, there were 1,267 manatees counted. Last year’s manatee survey was conducted from January 6-8 and there were 6,131 manatees documented.
The aerial manatee surveys are tricky to schedule because the results are highly weather-dependent. It needs to be cold, and it needs to have been cold for several days prior to the survey to make sure that manatees have clustered together in the warm water.
Also, it can’t be too windy for the few days prior to the survey or the water can be murked up, or the ability of the observers to accurately count submerged manatees will be impacted. And it can’t be too windy or cloudy on the days of the flights.
Further, these conditions have to be evaluated over a large portion of the state at the same time, and the go or no-go decision must be made a few days in advance to allow the coordination of aircraft and observers, and to notify the FAA and power plant officials about the flights, some of which occur in restricted airspace.
There are some years when conditions line up perfectly on the days of the flights and some years when it doesn’t work out so well, and the manatee counts can be affected.
But even in light of the limitations of the surveys, a couple things are clear. First, the number of manatees counted each year is useful as an absolute minimum number of manatees in Florida’s population. The other is that there is a pronounced upward trend in this minimum population count — nearly five-fold in 28 years.
I can remember when manatee protection regulations were first enacted and the first slow-speed zones were put in place. We were told then that the total number of manatees in Florida was estimated to be no more than 900, statewide. Now we think there might be more than ten times that number. To me, that sounds like cause for celebration.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Call him at 941-639-2628 or email Captain@KingFishFleet.com.