Nearly 1,000 manatees have record-breaking gathering at Florida state park amid ongoing mortality event

Florida manatees have spent the last few years struggling to survive, but just days ago, one state park saw a more uplifting update from the species. Blue Springs State Park, just a few dozen miles north of Orlando, saw its largest-ever manatee count. 

“Record-breaking morning at Blue Spring State Park,” the park wrote on Facebook on Jan. 21, revealing that park officials counted 932 manatees in the area, nearly 200 more than their previous record of 736 that was counted on New Year’s Day this year. 

Park officials posted a photo of one area in the park, where dozens of manatees can be seen huddled together in the water. 

The record number was counted on what the Save the Manatee Club says was the “coldest morning of the season yet.” According to the group, the river temperature was 58.8 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Manatees are sensitive to the cold, which is why during the winter they are often seen huddling together in areas where the water is warmer. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Blue Spring State Park is “one of the largest winter gathering sites” for manatees in the state, as the water stays at a “constant” 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

If exposed to colder water for too long, the mammals can develop a disorder that the site is comparable to “hypothermia, pneumonia or frostbite in humans and can make them very sick.” 

“Manatees depend on the warm water for survival, as they cannot tolerate water temperatures colder than 68 degrees for long periods of time,” Florida State Parks says on its website. ” Although manatees look “fat” or “blubbery,” they only have about an inch of fat and a very slow metabolism, meaning they cannot easily stay warm. This biology makes sanctuaries such as Blue Spring vital for their survival.” 

Florida manatees have been experiencing an unusual mortality event – a period of time in which a population of marine mammals is suddenly and unexpectedly dying off – since 2020. Last year, more than 550 manatees died, according to state data, with watercraft and disease being the leading causes of death for the animals. 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found that roughly 20% of those deaths were attributed to a “significant red tide bloom” that hit the state’s southwest. Red tide is a bloom of algae known as Karenia brevis that produces natural toxins, and when those toxins reach large amounts, it can be deadly for dolphins, turtles, birds and manatees, as well as cause humans to experience skin irritation and respiratory issues.  

Exposed manatees can get hit with a neurotoxin that weakens or paralyzes them and, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife, even causes seizures.  The agency says that manatees will often struggle to surface and breathe and can experience facial tremors, weakness and beaching. 

Manatees have also been struggling to find enough adequate food, with the state saying seagrass and macroalgae sources have “declined significantly.” In recent years, the state has been providing supplemental food to the mammals, which they said “significantly reduced” the number of starving manatees. Although the unusual mortality event is not over, the state ended the supplemental feeding program at the end of 2023.

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