CRUISIN’ THE COAST
Florida Manatees Can Be Spotted In Southern Louisiana Waterways Throughout The Summer
story by TRey Iles, LDWF Public Information
Curiosity drives many tourists to Louisiana. The Bayou State offers a diverse landscape both from a natural and man-made perspective. And don’t forget about the food.
But humans aren’t the only species that journey here to forage and see what they can find. Migratory birds flock here at different times of the year and they are usually easy to spot.
More reclusive and less seen, however, is the Florida manatee. Beginning around May and through October, manatees meander along the Gulf Coast ducking into estuaries and bays along the Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and even Texas coasts.
They can be seen throughout southern Louisiana waterways in the summer months and have been spotted as far north as the Amite River near Denham Springs. Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Endangered Species Biologist Keri Lejeune keeps tabs on the manatee.
It’s not exactly known why they leave Florida to venture west. It could be a result of a population increase at the core of their range causing manatees to travel more or the availability of warm water sources and aquatic vegetation west of Florida. Storm events may also affect manatee movements.
“They’re also just really curious animals,’’ Lejeune said. “It’s mainly males that tend to roam. They come over to check it out in the summer months. They just wander around.’’
And when they visit, Lejeune said, it’s important for Louisiana boaters to be aware. Manatees have no natural predators. Two of the biggest impediments to their existence are boat collisions with propellers and cold stress.
LDWF has placed caution signs at boat launches throughout south Louisiana advising boaters to be aware of manatees and to report any sightings.
The caution signs are located from Cameron and Calcasieu parishes in southwest Louisiana across the state to St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes in southeast Louisiana.
“Our primary concern is manatees being exposed to cold water temperatures and injured by boats,’’ Lejeune said. “Manatees are slow-moving animals. If a manatee is spotted while boating, boaters should idle and disengage propellers until the animal is at a safe distance and out of harm’s way. The manatee caution signage will help alert boaters and the public that manatees can be found in Louisiana waters and provides contact information to report sightings to LDWF.’’
The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee and is native to the Sunshine State. The other subspecies is the Antillean manatee, which is found in the Caribbean, Central America and northeastern South America.
They are federally protected but their numbers are increasing. It is estimated between 7,500-10,000 are in Florida. In recent years, the Florida manatee was down listed from endangered to threatened due to habitat improvements and population expansion.
“The folks in Florida and across the range have done great work in helping to recover the manatee,’’ Lejeune said. “And through partnering with them, it’s important for us to exchange as much information as possible on manatee sightings in Louisiana.’’
Manatees typically average 9-10 feet long and weigh about 1,000 pounds although some can reach more than 13 feet. They have a wide paddle-shaped tail and two flippers that assist them in eating and swimming. They generally surface about every five minutes to breathe but can hold their breath up to 20 minutes.
The species has a low reproduction rate which contributes to its peril. They can live as long as 60 years but usually only make it into their late 20s.
Manatees are docile animals and because of their easy going nature are beloved by most people. Lejeune’s first experience with a pair of manatees was one she will never forget.
“I was kayaking in Florida’s spring sand when these two large creatures swam next to the kayak and surfaced,’’ Lejeune said. “It was so neat. I got to see firsthand how charismatic they really are and why they’re called gentle giants.”
They are excellent swimmers. Manatees can migrate hundreds of miles at a typical distance of 20 miles a day. Some, like those that visit Louisiana, like to explore. Manatees have been spotted as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts, as far west as Corpus Christi, Texas, and as far inland as Memphis, Tennessee, through the Mississippi River.
Some, on the other hand, will remain in one area permanently. Most of the manatee population can be found in nearshore areas of peninsular Florida.
They are herbivores, meaning they eat only plants. They eat a lot and aren’t real picky. Also known as sea cows, manatees will eat for up to eight hours per day on aquatic vegetation. They also appear to enjoy water hyacinth.
“When they’re in Louisiana, once they find a good foraging area, they’ll hang out there,’’ Lejeune said. “Sometimes I’ll get different sighting reports from the same manatee over a few weeks in the same area. We have video footage of one spotted in Lake Palourde near Morgan City that is actually feeding on hyacinth.’’
The majority of manatee sightings in Louisiana are in and around Lake Pontchartrain. The animals are funneled there as they make their way along the northern Gulf Coast from Mississippi, into Lake Borgne, through The Rigolets then into Lake Pontchartrain.
“From there, they’ll go into some of these other waterways like the Tchefuncte and Tangipahoa rivers (in St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes),’’ Lejeune said. “They may go into Lake Maurepas and in the Blind River and Amite River along the way.’’
But some will move south or west and go past the Mississippi River and along the rest of the Louisiana coast and waterways.
“We had one last year turn up at Pointe aux Chenes (Wildlife Management Area in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes),’’ Lejeune said. “We also recovered a dead one in December in the Cameron Ship Channel (in southwest Louisiana).’’
Louisiana’s coastal region would seem to be the perfect home for the manatee with an abundance of secluded habitat in southern Louisiana. The state’s marshes, freshwater lakes and rivers thrive with vegetation for the manatee. Plus, there are fewer people and dangers in those spots.
The problem is the weather. If you can believe it, Louisiana’s winters are too cold for the manatee to survive.
The magic number for manatees is a water temperature of 68 degrees. Once they are exposed to temperatures below that threshold for an extended period of time, they are in danger of cold stress, Lejeune said.
“Once the water temperature gets below 68 degrees their metabolism and immune system begins to slow down,’’ Lejeune said. “They’ll get lethargic, stop eating and they can die of cold stress. If they begin making their way back (to Florida) in the fall or they find a warm water refuge during the winter months they can avoid the risk.’’
Central and southern Florida, where many of the manatees live, rarely see the water temperature dip below 68. A prolonged cold snap in the winter of 2018 helped contribute to 779 manatee deaths in Florida, a relatively high number. More than 200 of those deaths were attributed to the vicious red tide outbreak in southwest Florida.
Lejeune said 11 dead manatees have been reported or recovered in Louisiana in the 10 years she’s worked at LDWF. Most, more than likely, succumbed to cold stress, she said.
But she said it may be possible for manatees to survive the Louisiana winter. Lejeune thinks some may actually find warm water sources and over winter here.
“We get quite a few sighting reports in the winter,’’ Lejeune said. “What I suspect is they’re finding areas with a warm water outflow from industrial plants and hanging there.’’
Helping Track Manatees
Though manatees are docile and pose little threat to humans, interaction with them is against the law. They are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They are not to be harassed in any way and Lejeune said if anyone spots one to enjoy it from a distance.
But she also said it’s important if you spot one to let LDWF know.
Any manatee sighting information, with pictures and video footage, if possible, should be reported to LDWF’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-442-2511 or to Lejeune at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sighting information allows LDWF biologists to track waterways in Louisiana that are used by manatees and to respond promptly if a manatee is injured.
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