Manatees should soon be on the move as their annual fall migration inland to escape cooler winter conditions along the coast.
Their immune system can’t deal with colder temperatures, and the sea cows can get cold stress illnesses once water temperatures dip below 68 degrees, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Coastal water temperatures are just a few degrees above that, according to the National Weather Service in Ruskin.
“It looks like it’s around 71 or 72 degrees off Fort Myers Beach,” said Nicole Carlisle, a meteorologist with NWS. “It starts with the first big cool down of the season; and as we keep getting additional fronts, that will allow the water temperatures to slowly fall. So you can expect that for the next two months plus.”
November is FWC’s manatee awareness month
November is FWC’s manatee awareness month because it is typically the time of year when they are on the move.
Manatees spend summer months along the coast, eating seagrasses in bays and rivers and mating in large herds.
Each fall, they travel from coastal areas to inland rivers, creeks and power plants that discharge warm water, like the Florida Power & Light Plant near Manatee Park along the Orange River in east Fort Myers.
As a result, most manatee slow speed boat zones are in place from November until March.
FWC is the state agency charged with protecting and monitoring the manatee population and its habitat.
Florida’s manatee population has exploded over the past two decades, jumping from an estimated 1,200 sea cows in 1991 to about 7,500 animals today, according to FWC.
Lee County is typically one of the deadliest counties in Florida
But it’s been a deadly year for manatees, as the total number of recorded deaths has already passed 1,000.
Lee is typically one of the deadliest counties in Florida for manatees when it comes to boat collisions, but only six of the overall 90 boat-related deaths recorded through Nov. 12 have been here.
The county is second in overall deaths with 104. Only Brevard County, which has experienced a massive mortality event this year, has more deaths than Lee, with 327, according to FWC records.
Documented boat deaths are about average this year when compared to the past five years.
Ninety manatee boat deaths have been tallied by FWC this year, with the five-year average being 99 boat deaths.
During that same time period, the highest number of yearly boat deaths was 120 in 2019, according to FWC records.
The boating public can help protect manatees by being observant of speed zones and by watching closely for manatees while underway.
“The majority of the waterways aren’t regulated, so we encourage people to wear polarized sunglasses to be able to see them in the water,” said Pat Rose, with Save the Manatee Club. “Also look for the circular patterns, we call them footprints, along the surface. And avoid the seagrass beds when they’re going fast.”
Rose said boaters who strike a manatee should report it to FWC.
“Thankfully there are a lot of compassionate boaters out there who have called in manatees and stayed with them and helped save their lives,” Rose said.
He said the Orange and Caloosahatchee rivers are particularly dangerous areas for manatees.
Manatees were first listed as a protected animal by the state in 1983.