Manatees appear to be swapping Florida waters for Alabama waters
Say the word manatees and you might think of the state of Florida. The gentle sea cows regularly visit 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 increasingly appearing in Alabama waters.
Ask one of these manatee spotters, and the sight of one of these sea cows surfacing in the calm waters of an Alabama river might seem amazing. Manatees average ten feet long and can weigh up to half a ton. Manatees are usually associated with Florida, but they’ve been around the Mobile Bay area long enough to appear in the fossil record. Lately, more of them are showing up in the northern Gulf and staying longer in the year. Last week, a manatee died after being found south of Mobile.
“This year, I always say that when you think you know what an animal or a population is going to do, they’ll do something different and that’s what keeps us busy as researchers,” said Elizabeth Hieb. She manages the Dauphin Island Sea Lab‘s manatee observation network.
“But we continued to see a trend over a few years of manatees staying longer in the season,” Hieb said. “Staying here in the northern gulf. Kind of a western panhandle from Florida through Texas through November and December regularly with sightings even going into January and February in some years, so sightings really year round.
While manatees seem to love the waters of Alabama, it can be a problem for them if they stay too long. Hieb says cold water can kill these sea creatures designed for a semi-tropical climate.
“So when the water drops below about 68, 70 degrees Fahrenheit, they can start showing signs of what’s called cold stress syndrome, which can ultimately be fatal to them,” he said. Hieb. “So we really want to emphasize the message that even though it’s sunny outside and it could be a day at the beach, the water temperatures are still low enough in the area for manatees and any sightings.”
Last month, a manatee died after being found in the Theodore Ship Channel in Mobile. The cold and other factors apparently contributed to the animal’s death. Hieb says people should report manatee sightings year-round, but especially when it’s cold.
“We want people to call us all year round whenever they see a manatee because that’s what helps our research program, but especially at this time of year, immediately reporting to our hotline and by letting us know that there is a manatee or multiple manatees in the area. It’s really helpful for us to have access to the situation if that animal is showing signs of stress. It’s 1-866- 493-5803 And when people call there are two options – leave a message for non emergency or press 1 for emergency like animal in distress or dead animal or stranded animal and this line rings directly to a phone for someone on call 24 hours a day.
The Dauphin Island Sea Lab is an Alabama Public Radio underwriter.
Ruth Carmichael is a senior marine scientist at the lab. She says the manatees come here from several places in Florida.
“In our area we have had animals that we know come here regularly from relatively close areas 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 on the east coast of Florida, which is the area currently impacted by seagrass loss where animals are starving,” Carmichael said.
Seagrasses are a major food source for manatees. The loss of seagrass on the east coast of Florida is thought to have caused a number of manatee deaths in that area. Carmichael says some of the manatees seen here may be dispersing in search of food.
“Even if everything is fine, if you have more animals there is more competition for those resources, so they can become relatively more limited, which I think has happened in recent years, and then you add to that now this series of other things that have happened that have reduced the quality of habitat or the availability of food in some of their central areas in Florida and in Florida a lot of problems they think have with food, with seagrass losses, are related to water quality and pollution and so I think we’re finding now, you think about climate change, you think about humans affecting the quality of water. We don’t often think about it, but maybe a lot of things we can do to help animals, like the things that people have been talking about for a long time, that is, taking care of the animal. monitor the quality of your water and it will, in the long run rm, also help our fisheries, all the animals that live in the water, but also the manatees.
“The manatee population on both coasts had increased,” said Jessica Koelsch Bibza. She is a senior wildlife policy specialist at the National Wildlife Federation in Florida.
“Now obviously the Atlantic coast was hit hard by last winter’s mortality, but there is every indication that the animals on the Gulf Coast are not dramatically affected,” Bibza observed.
She says the east coast manatees are affected by the loss of seagrass beds, but the gulf’s spread is more due to an increase in population.
“You see it more. It’s happening more and more often that the animals are up there and yes, the manatee population in the whole state of Florida
The major seagrass die-offs and major mortality events that have been making headlines all of last year and I am sure will be again this year have taken place on the Atlantic coast.
Now, that’s not to say that all seagrass beds on the Gulf Coast are healthy, abundant and prolific, but we don’t have this massive crisis situation going on,” Bibza said.
She says another factor is that the local waters are warming up, which the manatees like.
JB: What a lot of people in the scientific community think is range expansion and it’s due to a phenomenon known as tropicalization, which is basically, the climate changes, and the weather changes and it it’s warmer farther out, so there’s just more suitable habitat both in terms of seagrass and in terms of water at the right temperature. So those are the two main factors that influence the distribution of manatees – water temperature, especially in winter and food availability and with tropicalization it’s just easier for them to stay in other places. for most of the year.
Although the water may be warmer, winter in the northern gulf remains a threat to manatees. Bibza agrees that anyone seeing a manatee should report it immediately and should not disturb or try to feed the animal. Manatees that are used to being fed may stay until it is too late to return to warmer water. In winter, they must migrate to hot springs. 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 must be back in Florida by now.
“We want these animals to move on and biologically know what to do and if we try to do something like, we have people feeding them or watering them, that can actually cause them to staying in an area longer than they should be leaving,” she said.