The temperatures are dropping, you’ve pulled out the heavy sweaters from the back of the closet, and snow is falling from the sky: It must be winter time…unless you’re in the Florida Keys. Without all these obvious cues, how do we know it’s winter here? Believe it or not, it does cool off here just a little bit, and once our water temperatures dip below 68 degrees Fahrenheit something very dramatic happens: all the manatees disappear. These amazing mammals, so common in the canals of the Florida Keys all summer long, move en masse to warm water springs in the winter time.
Despite their robust shape, manatees actually have very little body fat. Without this insulation to protect them, their only defense against the cold is to leave. Luckily for the manatees, Florida is the home to several natural warm-water springs that bubble up from underground. These springs remain a delightful 75 degrees year round, just perfect for a manatee. Two springs hosting the largest winter gathering of manatees are Blue Springs on the east coast of Florida and Crystal River on the west coast. Manatees have even been known to search out manmade warm water sources such as the output drains at power plants!
Manatees are protected in this country under the Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. They are also incredibly loved, and so every winter people travel en masse, just like the manatees, to Blue Springs and Crystal River to see them. From boardwalks, boats, or even underwater, people can slowly, quietly, and unobtrusively have the priceless opportunity to see these gentle giants up close. With specific direction, and requirements for “Manatee Manners”, people from all over the world have learned to love this animal who, legend has it, was the inspiration for the first mermaid sighting. And for those who are unable to make the trek this winter, the Save the Manatee Club provides a live feed from the manatees’ wintering grounds on Manatee TV.
Why is all of this so important? Because when the water warms up, and the manatees once again venture into oceans, bays, rivers, and other heavily-traveled waterways, these slow-moving herbivores will find themselves in dangerous territory. With boat strikes posing serious threats to manatees’ survival, the most important thing we can do to protect them is to remain watchful from our boats and respectful of speed limits. What is the one thing that may cause a hurried family or an impatient boater to slow down and be careful in manatee habitat? Love and respect for these animals. So, with our absolute belief that up-close interactions with animals inspire conservation behavior toward these animals and their habitats, we encourage you to enjoy the manatees this winter and ensure their survival next summer.