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Not Much of a Holiday for Manatees, Sea Turtles Avoiding Boaters

PHOTO: Manatees can be found in open water and on tidal creeks in Florida. Boaters are being urged to watch their surroundings carefully to avoid hitting them. Photo credit: Chris Muenzer
PHOTO: Manatees can be found in open water and on tidal creeks in Florida. Boaters are being urged to watch their surroundings carefully to avoid hitting them. Photo credit: Chris Muenzer
July 2, 2014

TAMPA, Fla. - Thousands of boaters will be enjoying Florida waters this weekend, but they're not the only ones. Manatees also are quite common this time of year, as they migrate to their feeding and resting areas for the summer - and getting hit by boats is the leading cause of their injuries and deaths.

Lifelong Florida boater and sailing coach Ian Lineberger said it takes just a little effort to exercise a lot of caution.

"You can see the manatees if you wear a good pair of sunglasses and know what you're looking for," he said. "They're usually a big, dark smudge in the water. If I'm not in a manatee zone and I see a manatee, then I'm going to give them a wide berth and probably slow up a little bit."

Because it's sea-turtle nesting season, they also are at greater risk.

Aside from looking for these critters, there are other clues. A "footprint of swirls" often can be seen in the water just above a one-ton manatee, and a 300-pound loggerhead sea turtle may only show its head.

Boaters who hit an animal are encouraged to call 1-888-404-3922 so wildlife officials can help. Provided they were boating legally, boaters will not be charged or fined.

Elizabeth Fleming, senior representative with Defenders of Wildlife, said it's important to watch out for identified "manatee zones," obey the boating speed limits - and wear the right pair of sunglasses.

"Wearing polarized sunglasses is always a good thing," she said. "It helps boaters see through the water; it helps see these other types of animals, and can save a life."

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, about 5,000 manatees live in Florida waters. Scientists believe the population, near extinction at one point, is increasing. Lineberger said they're not the only thing that has benefited from environmental efforts.

"Conservation efforts to clean up Tampa Bay, in my lifetime, have made a big difference," he said. "Tampa Bay used to be kind of nasty - there wasn't any sea grass, and you couldn't see bottom."

In addition to threats from boaters, manatees also can be harmed by environmental factors such as red tide and loss of warm-water habitat. The state Wildlife Conservation Commission said last year was the worst year on record for them, with 830 manatee deaths - double the number in the previous year.

More information on Florida manatees is online at defenders.org.

Stephanie Carroll Carson, Public News Service - FL