Manatee Awareness Month: Florida’s Beloved Sea Cows Need Urgent Help – Orlando Sentinel

Orlando Sentinel |

Nov 12, 2021 at 5:00 AM

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Manatees find refuge in the warm waters of Blue Spring State Park in Orange City. Sea cows have been a conservation success story in previous decades but have faced threats in recent years due to watercraft strikes and malnutrition caused by a lack of seagrass available to eat. (Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel)

November is Manatee Awareness Month and while Florida’s beloved sea cows will soon make their return to spring runs and warm waterways, they’re also facing threats to their survival.

Thanks to conservation efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and nonprofit organizations, manatees, which were once listed as endangered, now number in the thousands in Florida. However, record numbers of sea cows have died this year, due in large part to starvation and malnutrition caused by a lack of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon.

“Today, we’ve lost about 95 to 96 percent of the biomass of seagrass within that system,” said Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club. “Over the past decades, we’ve continued to have nutrient loading coming in from human waste, through septic tank leaching and improper sewage treatment, and fertilizers, both residential and agriculture.”

Manatees find refuge in warmer waters at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City in 2009. (Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel)

This pollution causes algae to choke out seagrass growth, a problem that has contributed to nearly 1,000 manatees deaths in the last year. That number represents about 20 percent of the total East Coast manatee population, Rose said.

Florida’s record year for manatee deaths is approaching 1,000, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

At the same time, the aquatic mammals still suffer from watercraft strikes, which can result in injuries and mortalities.

It’s hard not to feel a sense of dread when considering the uphill battle sea cows face. But Rose said there are steps everyone can take to help, especially during Manatee Awareness Month and the start of manatee season.

“For boaters, wear polarized sunglasses, follow the rules, slow boats down in the protected areas, look for signs that manatees are in those areas and report a sick or injured manatee to the Fish and Wildlife Commission hotline,” Rose said. “We even took on a campaign this summer to have billboards in the northern Indian River Lagoon to encourage people not to fertilize their lawns or to fertilize appropriately.”

In the exhibit’s natural habitat area for recovered manatees, a guest in the underwater viewing area reaches out to a recovered manatee rehabbed at the SeaWorld Orlando Animal Rescue Center, photographed on Aug. 5, 2021. In July, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) reported 866 manatee deaths so far in 2021 — the highest death toll ever recorded in the state in a single year. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

Rose encouraged other concerned citizens to make sustainable personal choices, get involved in local government and join the existing efforts of Save the Manatee Club or other environmental organizations.

In cooler winter months, hundreds of sea cows congregate in Florida spring runs and warm waterways to avoid cold stress. November through March, humans can view these gentle giants in places such as Blue Spring State Park, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park and Three Sisters Springs.

Opportunities to see manatees in captivity include SeaWorld Orlando, Epcot’s SeaBase and ZooTampa.

“Manatees are kind of a defenseless creature that needs our help. They made their way just fine, coevolved with our aquatic ecosystems and seagrasses. It wasn’t until man started messing with things that they started having problems,” Rose said. “We’re working with every partner we can to help fix what’s broken. We’re not interested in pointing fingers; we’re more interested in saying, ‘Join with us, help us do what we need to do collectively.’”

To learn more and follow along with Manatee Awareness Month education, visit The club also offers live webcams to spot sea cows online. If you see a sick or injured manatee in the wild, call 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).