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Manatee ManiaPosted Monday, January 9, 2012, at 5:57 PM
On Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012, a mother manatee and her young calf swim in the warm waters emitted by the Ft. Myers Power Company. Almost 300 of the slow-moving aquatic mammals were seen at the Manatee Park station, where the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has set up a viewing station for tourists and local manatee enthusiasts.
The recent January cold wave which brought icy temperatures to Southeast Missouri has had a correspondingly chilly effect in southern Florida. Certain Missouri visitors to the normally balmy peninsula scrambled for the warm clothes they came in.
Under the normally-warm Florida waters, a unique resident swims unnoticed most of the year. However, things change when temperatures dip. The gentle giants known as manatees migrate to the only warm water available, namely, the discharge from local power plants.
According to Kevin Baxter, media relations officer for the Florida Fish and Wild Life Institute in St. Petersburg, manatees need temperatures above 68 degrees.
"A cold-related die-off of manatees in early 2011 set the stage for a third straight year with high numbers of deaths for the species. Our agency has documented 453 manatee carcasses in state waters in 2011," stated Baxter. "This is the second-highest on record."
In Ft. Myers, Manatee Park has been set up as a manatee viewing station, where curious visitors can stand above the canal leading from the huge Ft. Myers Power Plant to the Caloosahatchee River, where manatees come in from the Gulf of Mexico. Last week, conservation officials counted almost 300 of the large aquatic "sea cows" in the confines of the station waters.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has set up an information center and park at the viewing station, where they charge a dollar per car to park and view these fascinating creatures. The money is used to protect the manatees as a unique resource for the state. The state also sells a special "Protect the Manatee" license plate. Funds from the sale of the plates go directly to manatee research and protection.
The Florida manatee lives in brackish, salt and freshwater coastal areas around Florida, except when cold temperatures force it to the power plants. An adult manatee weighs around 1,000 pounds and is about 10 feet long.
At birth, calves weigh about 60-80 pounds. The cows produce one calf every two to three years, so the reproduction rate is slow. Calves stay with their mothers two or three years.
The manatee is a plant-eating mammal (herbivore) that must come to the surface to breathe air every three to five minutes. Like all mammals, it has hair on its body, nurses its young and is warm-blooded. Manatees can live to be about 50 to 60 years old, if they don't get killed by careless boaters.
Recently, Florida residents learned that a dead manatee cow was found in the straits between Pine Island and the Florida mainland. The area is known as a favorite locale for manatees. Signs are clearly posted, urging boaters to slow their boats to 35 mph or less, so that the slow-moving animals have time to get out of the way. Many manatees display scars from their encounters with boat propellers.
The Florida Conservation Commission has a toll-free number for residents to report deaths, injuries, harassment, accidents or orphaned manatees.
I find the rules for human/manatee interaction intersting. It is illegal to do the following: Give food to the manatees (this causes them to lose their fear of humans, who could feed them harmful things), give them water to attract them, separate a cow from her calf, disturb mating herds, pursue or chase them, block their path if they move toward you, hunt or kill manatees, fish or attempt to hook them. In all cases, "passive observation" is encouraged.
Fishermen are also urged to recycle monofilament fishing line, so that marine life will not become entangled in it. They are encouraged to wear polarized sunglasses while operating a boat, so they can better see objects beneath the surface.
As the warmer weather comes to southern Florida this week, these unique tropical animals will swim back out to the Gulf of Mexico to continue their quiet, peaceful grazing on sea grasses. Mama manatees will nurture their young in the warm waters of the Gulf, oblivious to the stares of curious tourists.
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Madeline (Giles) DeJournett is the Advance writer for the North Stoddard Countian. A retired high school English/history teacher, she spent 32 years teaching in 5 schools in Missouri and Alaska. These days, she lives quietly with a menagerie of wild and domestic animals on 52 secluded acres in the remote Tillman hills south of Advance. She graduated from Dexter High School in 1960 and Southeast Missouri State in 1964. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.