July 3, 2014

Thousands of boaters will be enjoying Florida waters this Fourth of July weekend, but they’re not the only ones. Manatees are on the move and can be found in their feeding and resting areas for the summer – and getting hit by boats is the leading cause of their injuries and deaths.

Fortunately, it only takes a little effort to ensure that a fun day out on the water doesn’t end in tragedy. Wearing polarized sunglasses cuts glare on the water and makes it easier to see the “footprint” of swirling water formed by a swimming manatee just below the surface.

Always check for manatees when entering or leaving harbor. If you see a manatee while boating, slow down and give it a wide berth. And remember, there may be other manatees – or even a calf – that you don’t see. If you want to stop and observe it, turn off your engine. Make sure you know where the manatee is before you restart the boat.

Manatees, © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic StockIn addition to manatees, sea turtles — not just in Florida but all along the Atlantic and Gulf coast — are swimming to shore to lay eggs, and thus are also at risk of boat strikes. Turtles are harder to see than manatees, but watch for their heads when they surface to breathe while swimming.

Florida boaters who hit an animal are encouraged to call 1-888-404-3922 so wildlife officials can help. In Georgia, please call 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363). Provided they were boating legally, boaters will not be charged or fined.

As always, it’s important to watch out for signs designating “manatee zones,” and obey the boating speed limits. It can save a manatee’s life — and save you a hefty fine!

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are about 5,000 Florida manatees. Their population has come a long way from near-extinction, but we still need to make sure these slow, gentle creatures have the best chance at survival in waters filled with fast watercraft.

In addition to threats from boaters, manatees also can be harmed by environmental factors such as red tide and loss of warm-water habitat. The state Wildlife Conservation Commission said last year was the worst year on record for them, with 830 manatee deaths – more than double the number in the previous year.

Listen to our Public News Service story on manatees and boating safety here!

Haley McKey is a Communications Associate at Defenders of Wildlife

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