By Ali Dunstan

The Florida manatee, a majestic sight to see, is one of our most treasured yet threatened species in North America. It is also Florida’s official state marine mammal and is protected under state and federal laws. Often referred to as a sea cow, these gentle, herbivorous creatures can be found in various salt, fresh and brackish coastal and inland waterways around the state.

Mostly grazing on seagrass, manatees can consume up to 150 pounds of vegetation a day. The closest living relative to the manatee is actually the elephant. The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee and is officially listed as threatened, recently downgraded from endangered.

Aerial surveys in 2019 estimate that we have less than 9,000 individuals left statewide. With no known natural predators, the slow-moving manatee’s biggest threats are mostly human-inflicted but also include habitat loss, habitat degradation from pollution, cold stress and collisions with watercrafts. In fact, almost every Florida manatee can be identified by scars on their body, as most that reach adulthood have been affected by boat strikes and collisions. Manatees can only swim around 3-5 miles per hour.

Manatees require warm-water habitats to survive, especially during Florida’s colder winter months. Water temperatures that drop below 65 degrees can be lethal to these docile, warmblooded animals. It is common during this season to find them congregated in warm springs around the state and also gathered at our local power plant in Apollo Beach, soaking in the benefit of the warm discharged water from Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station.

Manatees have been observed at this viewing area since the 1970s and can still be visited at the TECO Manatee Viewing Center on cold days between now and April 15, 2020. To date, the TECO Manatee Viewing Center has hosted over five million visitors, who come from all over the world to view these incredible marine mammals.

Visit www.tampaelectric.com/manatee for more information about this local, family-friendly, free opportunity to learn more about observing these amazing animals in the wild. To help the Florida manatees flourish for generations, remember to never feed, touch, disturb or interact with wildlife.

Yield to wake zones when in a watercraft and keep our oceans clean by recycling and properly discarding monofilament lines when fishing. Together, we can help save these gentle marine sirens.