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19 Endangered “Gentle Giants” Rescued from Florida Storm Drain

June 16, 2015

Story at-a-glance

  • In February 2015, a cold snap in Florida drove down water temperatures, leaving manatees searching for warmth
  • In Satellite Beach, Florida 19 manatees followed one another into a storm drain and found themselves unable to get back out
  • Thanks to a joint rescue effort, all 19 animals, including a mother and her calf, were rescued and placed in a nearby lagoon

By Dr. Becker

Manatees are known for their gentle personalities, slow graceful movements, and love of vegetation, which is why these marine mammals are sometimes referred to as “sea cows.”

Manatees love warm water and they’re migratory animals, spending much of their winters in Florida while in summer months they may travel west to Texas or up the coast to South Carolina or even Massachusetts. In February 2015, a cold snap in Florida drove down water temperatures, leaving manatees searching for warmth.

Many are known to congregate in beachside canals, but in Satellite Beach, Florida 19 manatees followed one another into a storm drain and found themselves unable to get back out.

19 Manatees Safely Rescued from Drain Pipe

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission marine biologist Ann Spellman told CBS News she was acting on a hunch to call city workers and check the drainage pipes for manatees.1 Sure enough, more than a dozen animals were spotted.

The rescue operation was a joint effort involving police and fire agencies along with SeaWorld and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. A backhoe was used to lift the animals out of the pipe.

While some appeared distressed and had scrapes and bruises from the close quarters inside the drain, all 19 animals, including a mother and her calf, were rescued and placed in a nearby lagoon. It’s thought that 11 additional manatees got out of the pipe on their own.

Florida Manatees Are an Endangered Species

As of January 2014, there were an estimated 4,831 manatees in the US.2 The animals have been considered an endangered species since the 1960s, when only several hundred manatees remained.

Though their numbers have grown, they continue to face threats from habitat loss, collisions with watercraft, entanglement in fishing lines and crab traps, ingestion of fish hooks and litter and becoming trapped or crushed in canal locks and flood control structures.

Manatees also have a low reproductive rate. They don’t become sexually mature until they’re about 5 years old, and then have one calf every two to five years. Calves are dependent on their mothers for one to two years. Unfortunately, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is reviewing their status for a possible downgrade from endangered to threatened, which provides for fewer protections under the law.

The review came after a petition from Save Crystal River Inc., which represents about 100 recreational boaters, tour operators, and dive shop and hotel owners, asked for the manatees to be reclassified. The animals like to congregate in the river, which is warmed by natural springs.

Boaters Trying to Take Manatees Off the Endangered Species List

The USFWS has designated the entire river a manatee refuge, imposes speed restrictions on powerboats, and during the winter months, it sets aside special manatee sanctuaries where boats are prohibited.

If the manatees are no longer listed as endangered they’ll receive fewer protections, which means the residents will have more use of the river… but likely at the manatees’ expense. As stated by Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club:3

Although I hope we might someday celebrate taking manatees off the endangered-species list, I strongly oppose removing endangered species protection at a time when manatees and their habitat are suffering so greatly. In recent years, cold stress and harmful algae blooms have taken a heavy toll on the manatee population.

From 2010 through 2013, 2,441 manatees died — that's nearly half of the highest minimum population count ever recorded. These tragic losses should be taken to heart because they also represent direct threats to the overall health of our aquatic ecosystems.

Manatees continue to face danger from every direction, including speeding boats, pollution, disease, entrapment, coastal development, cold stress and the decline in spring flows and surface waters. The concerns are many. Prematurely removing manatees from the endangered-species list would put them and their aquatic ecosystems at even greater risk.”

If you’d like to get involved, Save the Manatee Club has a list of ways you can help, from contacting decision makers in support of manatee protection issues to spreading the word, assisting manatee researchers, and volunteering.

Manatee Fun Facts

Manatees are fascinating creatures. If you’d like to see them up close, the best way to do so, for their protection, is from a distance, either from a shoreline or in a kayak a safe distance away. Manatees typically live in slow-moving rivers, bays, estuaries, and coastal waters in water that’s just three to seven feet deep.

If you’re snorkeling near manatees, don’t touch them and use passive observation. Simply float on the surface, be still and quiet, and you’ll be able to observe manatees doing what they do best: swimming, resting, and eating!4 What else is there to know about manatees?5

  • Manatees may consume 10-15 percent of their body weight in vegetation daily
  • They typically come to the surface to breathe every three to five minutes, but it may be as often as every 30 seconds or as long as 20 minutes
  • Manatees can live 60 years or more
  • Manatees are born underwater and must be helped to the surface to breathe by their mother; they’ll be swimming on their own within the first hour6
  • An average adult manatee is 10 feet long and between 800 and 1,200 pounds

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Sources and References

  • 1 CBS News February 23, 2015
  • 2 Save the Manatee Club, Manatee Facts
  • 3 Save the Manatee Club, Status Review Update
  • 4 Save the Manatee Club, Places to View Manatees
  • 5 Save the Manatee Club, Manatee Facts
  • 6 National Geographic, Manatees
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