Tiny Manatee Footprints

floridaconservation.org

The lagoon was beautiful today: the wind was whipping, there were sparkling sunbeams glinting off the white caps, and the shallows were shockingly clear.  Oh, and the water felt like tiny knives sinking into your skin.  The thermometers may have read 65F but it felt all of 32F.  I felt like a naturalist popsicle.  

Temperature doesn’t just bother me, it sends warm water loving manatees towards refuges within the interior of the state at freshwater springs and in the outflow areas of power plants.  Yep, they’re like manatee saunas in winter.  In fact I had just finished explaining to my students that we were unlikely to see manatees when water temperatures drop below 68F that a relatively tiny set of footprints dotted the surface in a small cove near our site on the Banana River in Cocoa. 

Manatee footprints?  Sure.  Because of the downstroke of their paddle manatees create circular disruptions that look like glassy spots if they’re close enough to the surface.  And when a manatee is on the move these spots can indicate direction since the footprints enlarge as they slowly disappear.  Its not your classic v-shaped wake from a boat, but it’ll work. 

(c) USGS: Sirenia Project

I became concerned about halfway through my observations of this probable juvenile when I saw that he consistently approached the docks despite the noise from my students.  It also became clear that he seemed small to be on his own at ~4ft in length.  He did seem to be in great shape otherwise and was actively scouting the area, investigating the dock structures, and munching on – of all things – manatee grass.  The sighting became a fantastic teachable moment for the students about the Marine Mammal Protection Act, threats to manatees, their conservation, how to report ill and injured manatees, and the current population size.

Luckily enough an FWCC officer was in the area before I left the site so I was able to relay my observations for a heads up on this fellow’s status.  They’ll continue to keep notes on his sightings and, so long as he continues to behave normally, will let him find his way. 

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