TAMPA — Summertime, almost, and the swimmin’ is easy.
Especially for the 5,000 or so manatees emerging from warm freshwater springs or heated power plant outflow canals where they spent the winter.
Now, Florida’s favorite sea mammal is beginning its annual migration into open water, where the food is plentiful and the environs roomy.
Getting there, though, could be a problem.
With warmer weather over the state, more boaters are heading out, as well, and as every well-heeled Floridian knows, boats with chopping props don’t mix well with herds of lumbering manatees.
This month, seasonal restrictions became effective in waterways used by manatees as routes to get to their summer homes, and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers are out with citation books in hands.
“We like to call them manatee protection zones, not speed zones,” said commission Capt. Gary Klein. “They are moving through or starting to occupy those areas for the summer.”
He said the zones were established based on historical data that tells officers where the manatee migratory routes and feeding zones are located. The zones are well marked, he said.
Boaters nabbed for speeding through manatee protection zones risk a ticket costing around $100, he said, depending on where it is written. Some counties tack on additional fees.
The restrictions run until Nov. 15, or the time of year when manatees begin their trek back to warmer inland waters.
Last year, more manatees died than ever before since Florida started keeping records. According to the state and the Save the Manatee Club, 830 manatees died in 2013, representing about 17 percent of the known population of 4,831. Of the total, 72 died of injuries they received in boat collisions, the state said. Four died this way in waters around Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
The previous record for manatee deaths was 766 set in 2010. That year is regarded as an anomaly because there were 11 consecutive days of freezing temperatures across most of Florida. Water temperatures plummeted and manatees died in droves from cold stress. Manatee experts never thought that record would be matched or broken.
In 2012, 392 manatees died in Florida waters, 82 from collisions with vessels. In the Tampa Bay region, 10 died after run-ins with boats.
And in 2011, 453 manatees died, with 88 being killed by boats. Thirteen died from boat collisions in waterways around the Tampa Bay region that year.
Along the Gulf coast, red tide in southwest Florida is claiming more manatees each year, said Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation with the Save the Manatee Club. In an op-ed piece written in February, she said:
“Manatees, often regarded as robust for their ability to survive multiple watercraft strikes and continue to live on after losing flippers to entanglements, are no match for the strange cocktail of toxins that are plaguing their environment.
“So what can we do? First, we need to keep on trying to protect manatees from the usual suspects. Human-related causes of mortality remain largely preventable.”
Boaters are urged to watch for manatees. Here are some other tips for helping protect them:❖ ❖
Wear polarized sunglasses to help spot the creatures in the water.
Watch for large, telltale circles on the water’s surface indicating the presence of manatees.
Look for snouts breaking the surface.
Slow down when the presence of manatees is indicated.
Boaters and others who find sick or injured manatees are asked to call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922.