Florida Manatee: Gentle Giants in Need of Support

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

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 a sea cow, manatees average ten feet long and one thousand pounds. They can live over 65 years. Manatees are found in coastal areas, in 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 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.

Though recently down-listed from federally endangered to threatened, manatees are not out of danger. We need to be vigilant to protect and restore areas critical to their survival and recovery and must work hard to ensure a bright future for the manatee. Federal protections remain, including manatee protection areas and refuges, and these mammals are still protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Florida’s manatees face several serious challenges, and The Nature Conservancy is working to create healthy, connected habitats in which the manatees can thrive.



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 year-round. 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.”

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.


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