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Watch out for Manatees on the Move

By Diane Bedard Posted on April 1, 2021

Please slow down and look out for manatees while boating in Florida this spring is a reminder from Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). As water temperatures warm, manatees naturally disperse from their winter habitats, traveling to other areas of the state and beyond.

Florida’s Nature Coast houses many winter refuges for the West Indian manatee, with the most famous being Three Sister’s Springs in Crystal River. Manatees are commonly seen throughout the Nature Coast area, and spring brings on an important reminder for boaters to slow down and look out for the indigenous wildlife.

This time of year manatees are leaving their winter refuges and are more likely to be in rivers, canals and nearshore waters. Florida boaters are also enjoying the season, so it is crucial to stay alert and avoid manatees while traveling through Florida’s waterways.

“This year, it is critical that people watch for manatees when on the water,” said Ron Mezich, Imperiled Species Management section leader. “With warmer weather, manatees will begin to disperse into open water, heading to a variety of coastal and freshwater habitats containing more ample food sources.” 

Seasonal Manatee Zones Require Slow Boat Speeds

From April 1 through Nov. 15, seasonal manatee zones require boaters to slow down to prevent manatees in their summer habitats from being injured or killed by motorboats and personal watercraft. Boat strikes continue to be a major threat to Florida manatees.

manatee rescue
This young male adult manatee was rescued from the Suwannee River in the town of Suwannee at the end of June. Veterinarians later determined that the manatee had been cut several times by a propeller on his right side over his lungs, had several broken ribs and was struggling with monofilament fishing line he had swallowed. He spent three months in rehab at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo before being released Sept. 21, 2012. Image courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife.

In 2020, FWC and partners rescued 29 manatees injured from watercraft collisions, and more died because of watercraft impacts.

FWC law enforcement officers are on patrol in state waters to inform boaters of the seasonal manatee speed zones and take appropriate enforcement actions. Boaters are reminded to abide by the regulatory signs they see on the water. 

Manatees can be difficult to detect when they are underwater, so it is important for operators of boats and personal watercraft to be vigilant.

How many manatees can you spot in this photo from Three Sister’s Springs? There are 17! Image courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife.

How to Best Spot Manatees from Boats and Jet Skis

You can help protect manatees by following these simple guidelines:

  • Wear polarized sunglasses to help spot manatees.
  • Avoid boating in shallow areas to prevent damaging seagrass and to avoid resting and grazing manatees.
  • Look for large circles on the water, also known as manatee footprints, indicating the presence of a manatee below.
  • Look for a snout sticking up out of the water.
  • Follow posted manatee zones while boating.
  • Physically helping a stranded manatee may cause it more harm. Instead, report injured, distressed, sick or dead manatees to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or by dialing #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone so trained responders can assist.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park Helps Rehabilitate Injured Manatees

Florida’s Nature Coast is an integral part of Florida’s West Coast manatee rescue and rehabilitation efforts. Besides having many areas that are perfect for manatees to winter in because of our many springs and spring-fed rivers and lakes, we have an abundance of natural shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico that helps grow sea grasses.

Rescued manatees are often moved to the manatee pool at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park after critical rehab at Lowry Park Zoo’s manatee pool. Here, Betsy the manatee is being lowered into the specialized system. Image courtesy of Susan Strawbridge.

At Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, injured manatees are brought, after intense treatment at Lowry Park Zoo, for rehabilitation. The Park has complete facilities to treat and provide respite care during long-term recovery times.

In addition, if an injured manatee cannot be returned to full health, Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park can provide a lifetime home in its beautiful spring. There are several manatees that live here. When you visit, ask a park employee or volunteer about them. Each one is named and has unique markings to identify it.

Educational Resources are Available from Florida Fish & Wildlife

Resources for boaters, educators and other interested members of the public are available at MyFWC.com/Manatee.

This manatee was swimming in Linda Pedersen Park. It has been scarred by boats but appears to be healthy now. Image by Diane Bedard.

What should you do if you see a manatee? The Viewing Guidelines page provides helpful tips on respectfully viewing manatees, additional guidelines for boat and personal watercraft operators, and information on what you can do to help these amazing aquatic mammals.

Are you interested in supporting the FWC’s manatee research, rescue and management efforts? You can purchase a Florida manatee license plate, or donate $5 to receive a collectable FWC manatee decal. Both are available from your local Tax Collector’s office.

Bubbles the Manatee is an area icon located outside the US 19 Visitor Center at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Bubbles is decorated each spring and for many holidays. Be sure to only “kiss” Bubbles, and not the wild manatees. Image by Elaine Reitberger

Spring is an active time for many of Florida’s wildlife species. For more information on wildlife in Spring, visit MyFWC.com/News and click on “Spring Wildlife News”.

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