Are manatees coming back?

If manatees could drink champagne, now would be a good time to put on the party hats and guzzle some. The latest survey of Florida’s manatees turned up 6,620 confirmed sightings, the third year in a row to break 6,000. For the first time since surveying began in 1991, more than 3,000 were counted on each coast.

The survey covered a total of 21 locations on both coasts — not a big sampling for a state with 1,350 miles of coastline — so it isn’t a census and the 6,620 manatees are merely representative of the likely increasing but unknown population. There must be many more that air and ground crews didn’t see during the survey that took place from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2.

For those who don’t know a West Indian manatee from a Portuguese man o’ war, the manatee is an endangered species protected by law. So ugly that it’s beautiful, it’s been the official marine mammal of Florida since 1975, without having to pay promotional and marketing fees.

When we stare at a chart of numbers long enough to believe they make sense, a few things about manatees jump out: In 31 surveys taken since 1991, the count has fluctuated but the general trend has been upward. In 16 surveys done from 2001 onward, the total was lower than 3,000 only four times.

The first survey to score 3,000 manatees or more was in January of ’01, when 3,300 were counted. Two surveys in January of ’03 scored 3,127 and 3,016. After a drop to 2,505 in ’04, manatees beat the 3,000 threshold in 2005 and ’06, dropped to 2,817 in ’07, and then rose to 3,802 in ’09.

Next came a surprise: Despite two devastating cold-weather kills in the first week of January 2010, the manatee survey of Jan. 12-15 reported 5,077 live sightings, a figure not to be topped until 2015.
Why? Answer unknown, but it’s fair to suppose those manatees were spending extra time in their warm-water refuges at power plants, springs and suchlike.

Those locations are the sites where manatee surveyors do their work — mostly in January and February, rarely in early March if a strong enough cold front happens then.

The right conditions don’t happen according to a dependable timetable. January and February’s about as tight as surveyors can plan. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) requires air temperatures of 49 degrees or colder near the counting sites, three to five days before the survey. Water temperature there has to be colder than 68 degrees.

The wind speed forecast has to be short of 15 knots and the sky forecast has to be clearer than mostly cloudy.

All that is most likely to happen at the same time sometime in January and February. If all of it doesn’t, there may not be as many manatees on the sites as there should be, and those who show up will be hard to see and count.

It’s hard for most of us to get a close look at manatees in a power plant discharge area, but they’re often found en masse around dams and flood control gates on canals and streams that lead to the nearest coast.