Rangers declare zone for manatees
Published: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 2:37 a.m.
CHIEFLAND - Rangers at Manatee Springs State Park have declared the spring run to the Suwannee River a manatee-traffic-only zone this winter.
The quarter-mile run will be closed to boat traffic through March 31.
The intention is to provide the mammals with a tranquil waterway between their preferred winter resting place - where 72-degree water bubbles up from underground - to the much-cooler Suwannee River, where they forage for seagrasses and other aquatic plants.
Stan Meeks, a full-time park volunteer, was the first to recognize the need for the manatees to have an undisturbed waterway.
Meeks observed their behavior during the past four winters and noted that the animals and their calves would almost always head for the river when a watercraft - even the relatively quiet canoes and kayaks - passed over them.
"Manatee Springs is the northernmost warm-water refuge for manatees in Florida during the winter, and they really need someplace to warm to their calves," Meeks said. "But what bothered me was that even when a kayak went by, they would take their babies out into the river where it doesn't take long for them to get stressed by the cold."
Vulnerable to cold, Florida manatees have for years wintered near natural springs, where temperatures often hover around 70 degrees, or power plants, where warm water has been discharged for decades.
Cold stress was the cause of 17 of 305 known manatee deaths in Florida during 2002.
Moving out into the river also exposes manatees to a much higher risk of being hit by watercraft, which was the cause of 95 deaths in 2002. Estimates predict there are about 3,500 manatees statewide.
Meeks' observations have been much appreciated by the U.S. Geological Survey's Sirenia Project. Sirenia is the name of the scientific order that the manatees belong to in the animal kingdom. The more-than-20-year-old, Gainesville-based research project does a lot of work on identifying manatees, as well as research into manatee behaviors like those documented by Meeks.
Rob Lacy, a park service specialist at Manatee Springs, said though the run will be closed during the winter, people still can use the park and canoe the Suwannee River using other entry points.
"We used to have occasional manatee sightings during the winter several years ago," Lacy said. "Then we stopped boat traffic from coming up the spring run and we saw a few more. Then the buoy lines went up to keep all watercraft out of the boil and we saw even more.
"It seems the more steps we have taken, the more occasions there have been when we have seen manatees here."
The park encourages visitors to watch manatees from the walkways and platforms around the spring head, and from the observation platform where the spring run meets the river.
"There are no guarantees on any day that you will see any, but we have had as many as 20 at once in the mouth of the spring run," Lacy said.
Meeks said a vantage point above the water, like the observation deck, makes it easier to see the manatees. He also noted that they are most visible before about 10:30 a.m. because of the angle of the sun on the water's surface.
Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or karen.voyles@ gvillesun.com.
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