As the cooler months settle in across Florida, the gentle giants of the sea, the West Indian manatees, are making their presence known in the warm waters of the Tampa Bay region and across Florida.
Most recently, a group of paddleboarders in Volusia County had a delightful and affectionate manatee experience when one curious manatee welcomed the group and interacted with them. Ned Johnson, who has been an eco-tour guide at Paddleboard Orlando for 15 years, had this rare up-close and personal encounter as a manatee unexpectedly held on to his paddleboard.
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Johnson shared his experience in an interview with Tampa Bay Living Magazine.
“I was unusually apprehensive. Moments earlier, he had casually and unexpectedly flipped one of my friends off her board with the flip of his tail. Prior to that, he had pushed a different friend’s board sideways for about 20 yards,” said Johnson. “She is a highly experienced paddleboarder and was low on her board. So as he approached me, I got down low, kneeling on the board to lower my center of gravity. As he rose up and put his flipper on my board, not wanting to be flipped, I started talking to [the manatee], telling them that they were beautiful and asking how they’re doing today.”
While this was a peaceful experience, Johnson shared that this type of interaction is uncommon during his paddleboard tours and advises other paddleboarders not to interact with or touch manatees, as it is a crime in Florida to feed and touch them.
“This was an uncommon occurrence. Ideally, we don’t want to interact with the manatee. We just want to passively observe, as we do with all wildlife,” said Johnson. “Generally, they pass right on by to the side of you and underneath the board without touching. Usually, they don’t pay too much attention to us. But once in awhile, there will be a curious manatee that may give a gentle push or rub.”
According to Johnson, it remains unclear why this particular manatee exhibited this behavior with the paddleboarders.
“As far as why, I think it’s usually a general curiosity; they don’t have much if any “fear,” as evidenced by the boat and prop hits scarring many of the manatees backs,” said Johnson.
Where to View Manatees in the Tampa Bay Region During the Winter
During the winter, as temperatures drop, manatees migrate to warmer areas such as freshwater springs or near power plants with warm water outflows. These majestic creatures rely on warm water for survival, as they cannot tolerate temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods.
The TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach is a prime location for manatee enthusiasts. Open from November 1 through April 15, this facility offers visitors the chance to observe manatees in their natural habitat from the comfort of boardwalks and viewing platforms. The center also features a nature trail, a wildlife observation tower and a stingray touch tank presented by the Florida Aquarium.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, another manatee hotspot, provides an underwater observatory where visitors can watch the manatees’ playful behavior up close. For those looking to engage in water activities, the park offers kayak and paddleboard rentals, allowing guests to explore the spring and its inhabitants for two hours per rental.
For a more intimate experience with these marine mammals, Three Sisters Springs on the Gulf Coast near Clearwater Beach offers land access with nature trails and boardwalk viewing platforms. This site is renowned as the largest winter refuge for manatees along the coastline.
In addition to these locations, Blue Springs State Park, although a bit of a drive from Tampa Bay, serves as a “winter haven” for Florida’s manatees. Here, visitors can observe hundreds of manatees seeking warmth during the cooler months, with swimming and other water activities prohibited to protect the manatees’ sanctuary.
No Petting or Feeding: Safeguarding Manatees
As the mercury dips in the Sunshine State, Florida’s beloved West Indian manatees seek solace in the warmer waters of Tampa Bay. These majestic marine mammals, often referred to as “sea cows,” have become a common sight, drawing locals and tourists alike to witness their tranquil presence. However, with increased human interaction comes the responsibility to protect these vulnerable creatures.
Encountering these marvelous creatures in their natural habitat is an exceptional and rare moment that should be cherished with utmost reverence and awe, considering there are over 13,000 magnificent manatees estimated to live in our waters, including more than 6,500 in the southeastern U.S. and Puerto Rico.
In October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began discussions on tightening protections on the West Indian manatee, following a petition requesting its reclassification. The move could provide more protection for manatees and potentially overturn a 2017 judgment that reclassified them from endangered to vulnerable. The agency is conducting a status review and will issue a 12-month finding on the reclassification’s warrant, publish a proposed rule and invite public comment. The agency is also revising what is considered a “critical habitat” for manatees in Florida, which is crucial for their recovery. The manatee population in Florida has been in severe decline since December 2020, with habitat loss, collisions with boats and ships, and pollution from sewage, manure and fertilizer run-off contributing to this decline.
Tips for Viewing Manatees Safely
Firstly, experts say people should observe manatees from a respectful distance, recommending that sightseers stay at least 50 feet away. This distance allows these gentle giants ample space to move freely without stress. Furthermore, they advise against using drones or other aerial devices to observe manatees up close, as these technologies can startle and disrupt their natural behavior.
“It is illegal to touch a manatee. For the mammals well-being and survival, it’s imperative that they are not socialized to human contact.”
— Ned Johnson, eco-tour guide at Paddleboard Orlando
When kayaking or boating in areas known for manatee activity, experts recommend that boaters maintain a slow speed and keep a vigilant eye out for the telltale signs of their presence, such as snouts breaching the surface for air or the circular “footprints” they leave on the water’s surface. Accidental collisions with watercraft are a significant threat to manatees, often resulting in serious injury or death.
“What I would recommend for the recreational paddler, if conditions permit, is to lower their center of gravity quickly. This can be kneeling or sitting. Make sure your paddle is out of the water, along with your hands and legs,” said Johnson.
Additionally, feeding or giving water to manatees is not just harmful; it’s a crime. Experts say such actions can alter their natural behaviors and make them more susceptible to harm. Manatees are perfectly adapted to finding their own food, according to experts.
During any manatee viewings at the locations mentioned in this article, visitors can take the opportunity to learn about local conservation efforts and how they can contribute. Many organizations, such as Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park, in the Tampa Bay area work to protect manatee habitats and educate the public about conservation efforts.
Lastly, during bad weather, manatees can become stranded. Experts advise that if anyone encounters a manatee that appears injured or in distress, they should avoid intervening directly and instead contact local wildlife authorities, who are trained to handle such situations appropriately. Sick, injured or dead manatees should be reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-3922.