Open Spaces: Record-breaking season for wintering manatees

Record-breaking season for wintering manatees

The year 1972 was big for many reasons--the first e-mail program, the classic film "The Godfather", and Don McLean's "American Pie". And, perhaps most importantly, a groundbreaking piece of conservation legislation known as the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

Together with the National Marine Fisheries Service, we work to conserve the world's marine mammals and their ocean ecosystems. Over the course of this year, we'll bring you stories from across the country that show how we're putting the MMPA into action to save polar bears, walruses, otters, manatees, and dugongs. (What's a dugong, you ask? Stay tuned this year and you just might find out!)

We usually think of Florida as a great escape from northern winters. But for animals like endangered West Indian manatees, even the Gulf waters off the Florida coast can be deadly cold, chilling to a hypothermia-inducing 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit. That's why each winter they flock to Kings Bay.

aerial view of manatees gathering in Kings Bay

Aerial survey of Kings Bay manatees from January 2010. Photo by Joyce Kleen/USFWS

Kings Bay sits at the headwaters of the Crystal River, about 75 miles north of Tampa. Fed by natural springs that pump out water at a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, it is an ideal spot for manatees to spend the winter. You'll find manatees in Kings Bay all year, but their numbers swell between November and March.

Kings Bay supports the largest gathering of wintering manatees in natural habitat in the world, and it also supports a thriving ecotourism industry built around experiencing these magnificent animals in the wild.

I mean, look at that face. Who wouldn't want to experience these animals in their underwater world?

a manatee up-close underwater

Photo by Samantha Hook/USFWS

As the number of manatees using Kings Bay has increased, so have the number of tourists wanting to see them. So in 1983, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was created to implement the MMPA and Endangered Species Act in Kings Bay and protect critical wintering habitat for manatees.

To ease the human/manatee conflict, a series of seven manatee sanctuaries were created throughout Kings Bay. There are no waterborne activities allowed within these sanctuaries--no diving, snorkeling, fishing, swimming, boating, etc. These sanctuaries allow manatees to rest in warm spring waters without fear of being disturbed by humans. Now, these existing manatee sanctuaries may be expanded if needed to accommodate the growing population of wintering manatees.

Refuge biologist Joyce Kleen recorded the highest number of manatees ever seen in Citrus County waters during the winter of 2011-2012. On January 5th, a record 657 individual manatees were observed. Joyce has been conducting biweekly aerial surveys, year-round, for over a decade. These long-term surveys provide scientific evidence that naturally occurring springs are vital for manatee survival. It's important that we, through protections provided by the MMPA and ESA, continue to manage critical wintering habitat like the sanctuaries in Kings Bay to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the sight of Florida manatees.

Of course, you don't have to take our word for it. Come on down and see the manatees for yourself!

Be sure to read Director Dan Ashe's blog announcing the 40th anniversary of the MMPA.

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Last updated: June 21, 2012