Florida Manatee: Gentle Giants in Need of Support

Connectivity of Florida's rivers and springs is key for many species in Florida.

The Florida manatee is a big-time celebrity. These large tropical marine mammals are iconic Florida natives, and can often be seen moving slowly through the state’s waterways. Also known as sea cows, manatees average 10-feet in length and weigh about 1,000 pounds. Manatees, who live over 65 years, are found in coastal area, springs, and rivers. They graze on aquatic vegetation and rely upon safe and healthy waters. These beloved animals are well known, and the threats they face are well understood.

In the Gulf of Mexico, Manatees are typically found from Florida through coastal Louisiana. In warmer months, they may travel up the Atlantic coast into Georgia and the Carolinas. Manatees cannot tolerate cold water. Despite their size, they have relatively little body fat. In cooler months, they seek warm waters, and migrate from colder areas to preferred warmer temperatures. Calves stay with their mothers for up to two years, and though manatees are usually semi-social, will gather with other manatees at warm water sites.

Florida’s manatees face several serious challenges, and The Nature Conservancy is working to create healthy, connected habitats in which the manatees can thrive. Will you help support our work?

Manatee swims with calf in Florida spring. © Nicolas Larento

Manatee swims with calf in Florida spring. © Nicolas Larento


Access to warm water is critical. “Cold stress is a serious issue. Florida manatees cannot tolerate temperatures below 68° for extended periods of time,” notes Anne Birch, Marine Program Manager. Many manatees gather in Florida’s springs during cooler months, attracted by the consistent water temperatures in the 70s. Due to the influx of bubbling groundwater to the springs —many millions of gallons daily— Florida springs provide a warmer water refuge. They become essential destinations for manatees during cold snaps. “Manatees will migrate many miles to reach freshwater springs when in need of warmer water,” says Birch.

Healthy and plentiful springs are required. High water quality and appropriate flows sustain the manatees and our important springs, which provide water for natural systems, as well as drinking water for people. The Conservancy works to protect areas which allow rainwaters to recharge our spring systems and supports legislation which protects water quality and assures appropriate water volumes remain in our springs.

Unrestricted, connected waters are essential. Restrictions or obstructions along Florida waterways to warmer areas creates a life-threatening issue for manatees. Unfortunately, some travel routes to the springs have become restricted by sediment build-up and other obstructions. “To help manatees survive for future generations and increase their population, it’s essential that their freshwater and marine habitats be reconnected, and remain connected, says Birch.

Our springs work and Florida’s Manatees
Manatees rely on springs for healthy habitat, especially during colder months. Our beloved manatees congregate in many of the areas in which the Conservancy has focused conservation work in the past, including Manatee Springs, Three Sisters Springs, Blue Springs, Homosassa Springs, and Warm Mineral Springs.

Conservancy projects have improved access for manatees to springs and improved connectivity to rivers, reduced the impacts of dams, weirs and other man-made obstructions, and have worked to decrease sediment build up which make spring runs too shallow for manatees.

Manatees crossing over the King Spring toward the manatee sanctuary’s shallow waters. © David Hinkel via USFWS Flickr CC BY 2.0

Manatees crossing over the King Spring toward the manatee sanctuary’s shallow waters. © David Hinkel via USFWS Flickr CC BY 2.0

Our springs work has positively impacted manatees:

  • We teamed up with partners of the Warm Mineral Springs Working Group to provide a safe, warm water refuge in Sarasota County, free from boats that can be dangerous for manatees.
  • In Florida’s Chassahowitza National Wildlife Refuge, we funded a project to remove boulders blocking the only remaining safe path for manatees to access Three Sisters Springs — providing safe haven for at least 200 manatees who spend winter there.
  • At Fanning Springs, we dredged the Suwannee River and rebuilt a dock which had obstructed passage to allow manatees a safe route.
  • In the Big Bend area of the Gulf of Mexico we helped restore seagrass beds, a primary food source for manatee.

Dangers to the Manatee
Although manatees have recently been downlisted from endangered to threatened by the US Department of Interior, they are not out of danger. Manatees must have access to the consistently warm spring waters in the winter, and face challenges accessing the springs due to habitat destruction, canal locks and flood gates, and dams. Additionally, boat strikes continue to harm manatees, and they are threatened by entanglement in fishing gear and traps, and other human harassment.

Each year manatees fight to survive water quality issues, connectivity, and cold snaps. The future for this threatened species is far from assured.  The Conservancy’s focus on freshwater springs and coastal protection and restoration will help to support the manatee’s survival. You can help these gentle giants by supporting our work. We can’t do it without you.

The Conservancy continues to focus on the health of our springs and aquifer, to provide for an abundant and clean water future for people and nature.


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