Record Number of Manatees Have Officials Urging Boaters to be Cautious

First published by Palm Beach Post, December 22, 2010


An egret rests on top of a manatee in an inlet by the Florida Power & Light Plant on Tuesday afternoon , Dec. 14, 2010 in Riviera Beach, Fla. Colder temperatures have drawn hundreds of manatees to the inlet as the power plant discharges water heated to 92 degrees, which is an estimated 30 degrees warmer than the rest of the water.

The holidays have seemingly cleared the highways of commuters, but manatee traffic is building to record numbers in Palm Beach County waterways, and wildlife officials are urging boaters to use caution.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that a recent aerial survey spotted more than 800 manatees in Palm Beach County waters. That's the largest number of manatees counted in a single fly-over survey of the county, according to the state wildlife agency.

Most of the manatees were seeking the warm refuge in the waters by Florida Power & Light's Riviera Beach power plant and the Port of Palm Beach. But some small groups were traveling in the Intracoastal Waterway, the FWC reported.

Similar surveys counted another 900-plus manatees in Broward County. They were gathering primarily around FPL's Port Everglades and Lauderdale power plants.

The latest warning comes on the heels of a Dec. 10 report of a record number of manatee deaths this year due to cold weather.

Biologists documented 699 manatee deaths in state waters, with 244 of those attributed directly to "cold stress" - a result of spending too much time in frigid waters during a lengthy January cold snap - according to state wildlife officials.

The huge jump in deaths is raising alarms because manatee deaths, which have been rising precipitously since 2007, numbered just 429 in 2009.

Manatees have no natural predators, but the so-called sea cows are often the victims of boats.

"It's a good thing the manatees are moving further south so they might be able to better protect themselves from the cold, but there's concern because this is expected to be a big boating weekend," said FWC spokeswoman Gabriella Ferraro.

The relatively mild sunny weather we've been having is expected to last through Christmas day before the third arctic chill of the month pushes into town Sunday morning.

"Normally, boating season ends around the Labor Day weekend in September or October," Ferraro said, "but with so many people in town and the good weather there's concern."

The FWC has increased patrols and are strictly enforcing the manatee-protection-zone speed limits, Ferraro said.

The FWC has this advice to boaters: "To avoid striking manatees, vessel operators should wear polarized sunglasses to help them spot the creatures in the water and watch for the large, tell-tale circular slicks on the surface of the water (manatee footprints) that indicate the presence of manatees." 

Ryan Heninger