Manatee Watching on Anna Maria Island

Watching out for manatee in Bimini Bay, Anna Maria Island

Watching out for manatee in Bimini Bay, Anna Maria Island

It is a huge privilege to get to see manatees in the wild on Anna Maria Island. Especially considering the fact that they probably will be extinct within the next hundred years. Those of us who spend time on or near the water know the tell-tale pattern on the surface that indicates manatees are below. A series of flat circles usually appears and then, every once in awhile, the nose of a manatee may surface. Sometimes the manatee pushes it nose through the water for a distance. Sometimes its back surfaces, too. Often, the back is badly scarred, having been hit by boat propellers.

A couple of years ago, we spotted a manatee swimming by the house, heading up the bay, and we quickly launched kayaks to go look for it. We eventually found two manatees. We stopped paddling and sat still, drifting, to observe them in the clear, shallow water. As we drifted, I ended up closer to the larger manatee than I would have liked to be. The sheer size of this gentle animal was a bit intimidating. I was worried for both it and myself that we might have an awkward collision unintentionally. Fortunately, I gradually drifted away and then kept a little more distance.

The manatees found in Florida are West Indian manatees. They are part of the family Trichechidae, genus Trichechus. Other related species include the Eastern dugong. Among land animals, the elephant is closely related, which at first is surprising. But anyone observing a manatee feeding on vegetation will realize it uses its snout in a way that is similar to how the elephant uses its trunk.

According to Wikipedia, the world population of manatees dropped 20 percent in 1996, due to red tide combined with increasing injuries from boats and cold temperatures. An even higher number died in 2002. In 2009, there was some hope that a recovery was underway, as high numbers were counted. But by the end of the year, 417 manatees had died, which almost broke the 2002 record number of deaths, and the future of this animal looks grim. Certainly the very cold weather of early 2010 was hard on manatees this year.

The biggest threat to manatees is fast-moving boats. A University of Florida study showed that only 45 percent of boaters comply with slow-speed-zone warning signs in waters where manatees live. The propeller injuries not only kill manatees, but also cause gruesome mutilation and suffering, according to marine mammal veterinarians. Today, 26 percent of manatee deaths is caused by collisions with watercraft. At the federal level, manatees are protected as endangered. Hard as it is to believe, in 2006, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission downgraded manatee status from endangered to threatened.

It seems important to look for ways to protect this rare creature from further suffering and possible extinction. In 2003, the U.S.G.S. made this statement: β€œIn the absence of any new management action, that is, if boat mortality rates continue to increase at the rates observed since 1992, the situation in the Atlantic and Southwest regions is dire.”

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