The West Indian manatees could be dubbed "The Comeback Kid" of Florida's aquatic mammals. Manatees were placed on the endangered species list in 1967 with estimated populations of fewer than 900 by the early 70's. During January of 2010, a Florida manatee survey estimated the population to be over 5000. Over the past four decades, many smart ecologists, government agencies and boating organizations have pooled their efforts to bring this unique animal back from the edge. However, extinction was the fate of its 30-foot cousin, the Steller’s Sea Cow - extinct in 1769.
Travelers and locals alike love observing these Florida "river cows". Manatees are found in shallow, slow-moving rivers, bays, estuaries and coastal water ecosystems. They can live in fresh, brackish, or salt water. Manatees prefer waters that are about one to two meters (3-7 feet) deep, and they are rarely seen in areas over six meters (20 feet) deep. This habitat provides them with sheltered living and breeding areas, a steady, easily obtainable food supply and warm water - all of which they need to survive.
Spotting manatees in the wild during the months of May through October is a hit 'n miss proposition for most people. November through mid-April is the best time to actually see a herd of manatees. The reason is temperature-related. Though manatees look as if they could thrive within the Arctic Circle, they are very sensitive to cold waters. During these months when river temperatures drop, they congregate in areas that have warmer waters.
Florida’s natural springs, such as Blue Spring in Orange City, will get a herd of up to 200 manatees on the colder evenings. Blue Spring provides a consistent flow of 72 degree temperature. Manatees cannot tolerate temperatures below 68 degrees for extended periods. Blue Spring was the setting for oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau’s film documentary on these animals in 1971, The Forgotten Mermaids. Normally the best time to see the manatees is up until late morning. As daily temperatures moderate they go back into the St Johns to forage.
Blue Spring is a favorite nature and cultural stop with or without the presence of the “magnificent manatee”. The Blue Spring stop is included in our St. Johns River tours.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about these special animals, Jack. If any travelers are headed to Central Florida this winter, consider having a chat with Jack and gain some local insight on the places you visit.