For the fourth year in a row, Florida scientists counted more than 6,000 manatees in an aerial survey of places where the animals huddle for warmth during when it’s cold.
They counted 3,731 manatees on Florida’s east coast and 2,400 manatees on the west coast of the state for a total of 6,131, according to a news release from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. That’s 500 fewer than last year’s total.
The aerial counts are known as "synoptic surveys," intended not as a full-fledged census of how many manatees exist but only as a snapshot of the population. The numbers in the counts are notoriously unreliable, with one biologist comparing it to "counting popcorn while it pops." But the overall trend since the official statewide counting began in 1991 has shown a steady climb from about 1,200 manatees.
In 2015, under absolutely ideal weather conditions, the synoptic survey set a record by finding 6,063 manatees, about 1,000 more than the previous year. Scientists noted that the population hadn’t grown by 1,000 in just 12 months, but the observing conditions were that good.
In 2016, they counted 6,250 manatees — also the first year that more than 100 manatees died after being struck by boaters. Last year, the number spotted spiked even higher, hitting 6,620.
This month a team of 15 observers from 10 organizations flew around power plants and springs trying to count the marine mammals, which surface about every five minutes to catch a breath.
Fossils show manatees have existed in Florida for centuries. The first written account of someone seeing a manatee comes from the log of Christopher Columbus, who noted that mermaids were not as attractive as he had been led to believe.
Ever since Jacques Cousteau featured them in a 1972 television documentary, they have become an extremely popular symbol of the state’s natural bounty and a key part of several tourist attractions. The manatee’s homely image is depicted on everything from license plates (which pay for state manatee research) to barbecue sauce labels and liquor bottle holders.
Manatees were put on the original endangered species list in 1967 not because of their numbers but because of the threats they face from being hit by boats, poisoned by pollution and losing habitat to waterfront development.
Although those threats still exist, and scientists urged them not to do it, last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved manatees down a notch on the list of protected animals to "threatened," citing a computer model that said that they would not go extinct any time soon.