What’s the best way to count manatees?

You wait until it gets cold in January or February and then fly to the hot spots where the sea mammals congregate, jamming together as they seek for warm waters: Creeks coming out of warm springs and pools where power plants discharge their warm water.

Take a picture and count them up. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

But not this year.

Each year since 1991, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has conducted aerial “synoptic” surveys in the winter months, swooping in to spot the manatees as they cluster in their warm-water havens.

The COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on the state’s plan for a 2021 survey, Michelle Kerr told The Daily Sun. Kerr, the spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Commission, said putting people in a small plane was not a good idea with a contagious virus around.

“FWC staff safety comes first,” she said. “And since manatee synoptic aerial survey flights do not allow adequate COVID-19 safety guidelines to be followed, FWC will not be conducting a synoptic survey in winter 2021.”

She also underscored how important the warm water sites are to manatees during the winter. They need to find water winter havens to survive.

Prolonged exposure to water temperatures below 68 degrees can trigger cold stress, a complex chronic disease process. Manatees can suffer weight loss, white skin lesions or abscesses, dehydration, constipation and other disorders and infections as a result of cold water, researchers say.

Unlike seals and other sea mammals who inhabit colder waters, the manatee’s own layers of fat provide nutrition for the animal, not insulation. Depending upon the temperature of the water, symptoms of cold stress might appear in a few days or in a few weeks.


Growing numbers

Since 1991, scientists have counted more manatees bobbing around Florida’s East Coast waters than those on the West Coast. The good news is the numbers of manatees on both coasts have increased throughout the years.

But the counts always depend upon factors like the weather, clarity of water, how tightly clustered manatees are and other conditions.

From 1991 to 1995, researchers spotted fewer than 2,000 manatees in Florida.

That started to change.

In 1996, researchers counted 2,277, with 1,223 on the East Coast and another 1,054 on the West Coast. The following year, they spotted 2,630 manatees.

The next real leap was 2005 when researchers spotted 3,143. Of those, 1,594 were on the East Coast and another 1,549 were West Coasters.

From 2010 to 2014, researchers started spotting 4,000 to more than 5,000 manatees throughout the state. That total reached more than 6,000 from 2017 to 2018. However, in 2019, the count dropped to 5,733.

Is the trend going up or down? We may have to wait until next year to find out.

To learn more about manatees, visit myfwc.com.

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