Many creatures want to stay warm in the winter, and the 1,000-pound marine mammals swimming through Florida’s waters are no exception.
With the arrival of colder weather, manatee refuges and tour centers are preparing for the upcoming manatee season, which will see the mammals concentrate in warmer waters around the state and will last from Nov. 15 to March 31, 2017.
“Manatees can’t really tolerate very cold water,” said Iske Larkin, educational coordinator of the aquatic animal health program at the University of Florida.
While manatees usually weigh between 900 and 1,200 pounds, most of their weight comes from muscle rather than fat because they lack the blubber that keeps animals such as whales warm.
Manatees can suffer from cold-stress syndrome, which is similar to frostbite, when the water temperature goes below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, forcing them to move to warmer locations, Larkin said.
“These animals are coming into the warmer waters basically to rest and maintain their energy until things start warming up again,” she said.
One of their preferred locations is the Crystal River and Kings Bay area, which holds the distinctions of being the only location in Florida at which people are allowed to swim with manatees, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
But not all manatees are able to swimming freely among Florida’s waters.
Nicki Buckley, a ranger at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Citrus County, said the park feeds and cares for injured manatees or those born in captivity. The park is now caring for three: Ariel, Lorelei and Electra.
Normally, the park closes its waterways off with gates to reserve the area for just the rescued manatees. But starting Nov. 15, it will allow wild manatees into Homosassa Springs while still keeping the rescued ones in a smaller separated section.
“Usually, they’ll come in the evenings, [and] they’ll warm up,” Buckley said. “They’ll get their body temperature all nice and warm, and then in the mornings, they’ll head out [to eat river grass]. At night, they’ll come back in and start the whole process again.”
Populations of manatees in Citrus County recently increased to about 1,000, so it became necessary to establish sanctuaries and extend the size of no swimming/protection zones to increase their survival during winter.
Averaging between 30 and 50 manatees a day, the number at Homosassa Springs can climb into the hundreds when the weather becomes particularly cold, Buckley said.
Such extensions become problematic for manatee tour centers in the Crystal River area because it limits the space in which they can offer their boat and swimming tours.
Brandie Wooten, operations manager of River Ventures, which offers tours on the river year-round, said that while the company agrees with the sanctuaries, they do limit the areas boats can travel in.
“This year, the sanctuaries will be bigger than ever,” she said. “There are certain areas that we won’t be able to access when the manatee population is high, and that’s kind of hard to express to the customers.”
On the other hand, a large population means that the animals will be easier to find.
“When we do reach those population levels in this area, they are everywhere,” Wooten said.
Along with large numbers of manatees, the new season is expected to bring tourism and recovery to the Crystal River area, which was greatly affected by Hurricane Hermine.
The hurricane flooded the river with salt water, heavily reducing , lowering the number usually present, Wooten said.
“We actually had to rescue, I think, about 15 manatees,” she said. “Nine of them alone were stuck on a little pond on a golf course.”
Despite the challenges, Wooten said she is hopeful that as people from all over come to see the animals and perhaps swim with them this season, the area will break its record for number of manatees.
“Once they meet one,” she said, “you can’t help but fall in love with them.