Manatees appear to be trading Florida waters for Alabama’s
Say the word Manatees, and you might think of the State of Florida. The gentle sea cows are regular visits to the warm waters of the Sunshine State during the cold winter months. The costumed character Hugh Manatee was once the mascot of the Brevard Manatees minor league baseball team. But now, these sea creatures are showing up more and more in Alabama waters.
Ask any of these manatee watchers, and the sight of seeing one of these sea cows surfacing in the calm waters of an Alabama river can be seem astonishing Manatees are ten feet in length on average and they can weigh up to a half a ton. Manatees are usually associated with Florida, but they’ve come to the Mobile Bay area long enough to be in the fossil record. Lately, more of them are being showing up in northern Gulf and staying longer in the year. Last week, a manatee died after being found south of Mobile.
“This year, I always say just when you think you know what an animal or a population is going to do, they will do something different and that’s what keeps us busy as researchers,” said Elizabeth Hieb. She manages the Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s Manatee Sighting Network.
“But we’ve continued to see a pattern over a few years of manatees that are staying longer into the season,” said Hieb. “Staying here in the northern Gulf. The kind of western panhandle of Florida through Texas into November and December regularly with sightings even going into January and February in some years so really year-round sighting.”
While manatees seem to like Alabama waters, it can be a problem for them if they stay too long. Hieb says cold water can kill these sea creatures which are designed for a semi-tropical climate.
“So, when the water gets below about 68, 70 degrees Fahrenheit, they can start to show signs of what’s called cold stress syndrome, which can ultimately be fatal to them,” Hieb stated. “So, we definitely want to emphasize the message that even if it’s sunny outside and it feels like it could be a beach day, the water temperatures are still quite low in the area for manatees and any sightings.”
Last month, a manatee died after being found in the Theodore Ship Channel in Mobile. Cold weather and other factors apparently contributed to the animal’s death. Hieb says people should report sighting manatees year-round, but particularly when the weather gets cold.
“We want people to call us year-round any time they see a manatee because that is what’s helping our research program, but especially this time of year, reporting to our hotline right away and letting us know that there is a manatee or multiple manatees in the area. That is really helpful for us to access the situation if that animal is showing signs of stress. It’s 1-866- 493-5803 And when people call, there are two options – to leave a message for a non-emergency or to press 1 for an emergency, like if an animal is in distress or a dead animal or a stranded animal and that line directly rings a phone for someone who’s on call 24 hours a day.
The Dauphin Island Sea Lab is an underwriter of Alabama Public Radio.
Ruth Carmichael is senior marine scientist at the Lab. She says manatees are coming here from several locations in Florida.
“To our area, we’ve had animals that we know come here regularly from areas that are relatively nearby like Crystal River, but then from Tampa and even last year, we had an animal that died here that came from Brevard County, which is over on the east coast of Florida, which is the area that’s being affected right now by the seagrass loss where the animals are just starving to death,” said Carmichael.
Seagrass is a major food source for manatees. The loss of seagrass on Florida’s East Coast is believed to have caused a number of manatee deaths in that area. Carmichael says some of the manatees seen here might be spreading out looking for food.
"Even if everything is great, if you have more animals, there’s more competition for those resources, so they can become relatively more limited, which I think has been happening in recent years, and then you add to that now these series of other things that have been happening that have reduced either the habitat quality or the food availability in some of their core areas in Florida. And in Florida a lot of the problems that they think that they’re having with the food, with the seagrass losses is related to water quality and pollution and so I think we’re finding now, you think about climate change, you think about humans affecting water quality. We don’t often think about it, but maybe a lot of the things that we can do to help animals, like just things that people have been talking about for a long time, which is take care of the water. Watch your water quality and that’s going to, in the long term, also help our fisheries, any animals that live in the water, but manatees too.
“The manatee population on both coasts had been going up,” said Jessica Koelsch Bibza. She’s a senior specialist in wildlife policy with the National Wildlife Federation in Florida.
“Now obviously, the Atlantic Coast has been taking a huge hit with last winter’s die-off, but all indications are that the animals on the Gulf Coast are not being dramatically affected,” Bibza observed.
She says East Coast manatees are being affected by the loss of seagrass, but the Gulf spread is due more to an increase in population.
“We are seeing it more. It’s happening more and more often that the animals are up there and, yes, the manatee population overall in the state of Florida
The big seagrass die-offs and the big mortality events are in the news all of last year and will be in the news again this year I’m sure, were taking place on the Atlantic Coast.
Now, that’s not to say that all of the seagrass beds on the Gulf Coast are healthy and abundant and prolific, but we don’t have that massive crisis situation going on,” said Bibza.
She says another factor is that local waters are getting warmer, which the manatees like.
JB: What a lot of folks in the scientific community believe it’s a range expansion and it’s due to a phenomenon known as tropicalization, which is basically, the climate is changing, and the weather patterns are changing and it’s a warmer farther areas longer, so there’s just more suitable habitat both in terms of seagrass and in terms of having the right temperature water. So, those are the two main factors that influence manatee distribution – water temperature, especially in the wintertime and food availability and with tropicalization, it’s just easier for them to stay in other places for more of the year.
While the water may be warmer, winter in the northern Gulf is still a threat to manatees. Bibza agrees that anyone seeing a manatee should report it immediately and should not bother or try to feed the animal. Manatees who are used to being fed might stay around until it’s too late to get back to warmer water. In the winter, they need to migrate back to warm water sources. Obviously, we don’t want them to have to be rescued. We want them to migrate to where there is warm water.
Ruth Carmichael agrees that the manatees need to be back in Florida by now.
“We want these animals to move on and they know biologically what they need to do and if we try to do something like, we have people who are feeding them or watering them, that can actually cause them to stay longer in an area that they should be leaving,” she said.