Manatee count much larger this year

5,067 sea cows spotted this time - 1,200 more than previous numbers.


Published: Friday, January 29, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 11:02 p.m.

As January's temperatures continue to drop, there is one thing steadily on the rise - the number of manatees in warm waters.

Thanks in part to local conservation efforts, this year's manatee count is much larger than in years past.

"This is good news," Wildlife Commission biologist Holly Edwards said. "It's showing that the measures we've put in place over these years are actually working."

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute counted an all-time-high number of manatees during the annual synoptic survey the week of Jan. 11.

A team of 21 observers from 10 organizations counted 5,067 manatees statewide. This year's count surpasses previous numbers by more than 1,200 sea cows.

"Basically the goal is to count as many manatees as possible," said Carli Segelson, a member of the Federal Wildlife Commission. "We do it when the temperatures drop because more of the animals are gathered at the warm-water sites."

Warm-water sites include natural springs and power plants because of their naturally warmer water temperatures.

The air temperature forecast for at least three of the five days prior to the survey must be less than or equal to 49 degrees; the water temperature has to be below 68 degrees; the survey area cannot have winds forecast above 15 knots; and sky conditions have to be crystal clear, organizers say.

"This year's high count reflects the influence that weather has on aerial survey results," Edwards said. "In addition, the calm, clear weather conditions on the days of the survey helped us to see and count record numbers."

Edwards said the survey area runs from the east coast of Tampa Bay south to Monroe County.

It is important to remember the Wildlife Commission considers these numbers to be a minimum count, and they are not used to assess trends or to be a population estimate.

"We know we miss animals," Edwards said. "Sometimes it gives people the wrong impression, but you just can't determine population counts from this survey because of its limitations."

Though there aren't any sanctuaries in Gainesville where you can visit these gentle sea cows, some of the springs and power plants in the area provide the best viewing places.

One of the closest places to visit is Blue Springs State Park, between Orlando and Daytona near I-4, where employee Rick Maynard counts the number of manatees that visit the park every day. On average, the number is about 150, he said.

"All you want to do is look at them," he said. "Don't touch or give them anything."

Other close viewing places include Crystal River, Merritt Island and the Tampa Bay Electric Company.

The number of manatees clustered around power plants worries Edwards, and she hopes to see a change in future counts.

"This count really illustrates how many animals are reliant on the hot water of these power plants to stay alive in winter," she said. "That's going to be a problem in the foreseeable future."

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