A manatee swims just below the surface in Crystal River, Florida.

Photo by: Brent Durand

Brent Durand

How to Help Florida’s Imperiled Manatees

By: Lucy Sherriff

One morning earlier this spring, a young male manatee was found stranded, starving, and distressed on the beach of the Palm Coast.

November 09, 2021

A rescue team was called while beachgoers draped wet towels over the animal to try to keep him cool. He was transported to Jacksonville Zoo, where the manatee, who was later named Gerard, was rehabilitated for 10 weeks until he was well-fed enough to re-enter the wild again.

Gerard was one of the lucky ones; 968 manatees have died this year alone according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which the organization described as an “unusual mortality event”.

Decades of pollution caused by farming and real estate development in the region have pushed the ecosystem to the brink, causing the manatees to starve.



Mom and baby at Three Sisters Springs.

Photo by: James R.D. Scott

James R.D. Scott

Last year, one scientist who works for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation noticed a worrying trend. Martine de Wit sampled tissue from manatee carcasses and found they were severely emaciated, with some up to 40% below their body weight.

The 156 mile-long Indian River Lagoon is a waterway that serves as a seasonal habitat for thousands of manatees. But pollution is killing off seagrass in the lagoon, meaning the manatees – fondly dubbed “sea cows” – cannot find enough food to eat. In some instances, they’re even eating seagrass roots in desperation, which is likely to permanently kill the aquatic plants.

Republican State Representative Thad Altman, who represents the county that the lagoon is located in, called the scenario a “catastrophe”.

What’s crucial now is cleaning up the waterways, not just in the lagoon but elsewhere along the East Coast. Manatees migrate as far as New England during the summer months to find food, and return to Florida’s rivers and coastal lagoons in the winter, as they need warm waters to survive.

However, manatees have begun sheltering near coastal power plants, which expel warm discharge into the water, tricking the manatees into thinking the area is a safe haven, when in fact it’s contaminated and barren.



Florida Manatee (Trichechus, Trichechus Manatus), Three Sisters Spring, Crystal River, Florida

Photo by: Stephen Frink

Stephen Frink

So, how can you help?

One of the most important factors is that the waterways are unpolluted, so if you live in Florida, sign up for clean-up events taking place in your area. If you’re a fisher, make sure to recycle your monofilament fishing line in designated bins near docks, ramps, or in tackle shops. If you don’t have one, get your local civic group to install a recycling bin in your area.

If you’re a tourist visiting Florida, only travel with responsible ecotourist groups. There are numerous tours offering people the chance to swim with manatees, but this isn’t always best for the animals, who can be easily disturbed and stressed. Boat propellers are also lethal for manatees, and so if you own a boat use propeller guards, reduce your speed and avoid traveling in seagrass or other shallow areas where manatees may be feeding or resting. You can also buy a Save the Manatee specialty license plate or donate funds to the manatee program that has allowed the state to develop management and research projects that protect and conserve these special creatures.

Next Up

Rare Whales Spotted in California

A handful of sightings of rare whales have been recorded off the coast of California in recent weeks, leading some to wonder what’s causing the magnificent beasts to swim up to the ocean surface.

The Mission to Rehabilitate Orphaned Manatees

Florida manatees are dying in record numbers from starvation. Critical care rescue and rehabilitation centers are running out of room. Georgia Aquarium has joined the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP) to provide additional expert care and facilities for manatees in need.

Tuna Conservation is Working

Two bluefin, a yellowfin, and an albacore tuna species are no longer critically endangered — surprising scientists.

Meet This Unique Otter Species

A few months ago, Georgia Aquarium welcomed two new additions to their Asian small-clawed otter habitat. Triton, a 4-year-old female, and Han, a 3-year-old male, joined the Aquarium as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Program (SSP).

First Marine Biologist to Win Prestigious Conservation Award

A woman has become the first marine biologist to win a $250,000 environmental prize for her work on preserving seahorses.

Whale and Krill Populations are the Secret to Healthier Oceans

Oceans rely on their largest species, especially whales, to recycle and regenerate ecosystems. Studies at Stanford University identify the whale as an animal that recharges its own food sources and recycles carbon. Now researchers think they have found a way to seed plankton and krill numbers that will boost whale populations and restore fading sea life.

Protecting Pink Dolphins and Piranhas Deep in the Amazon Jungle

Deep in the Amazon jungle, almost a two hour boat ride from the nearest town, lies a complex wetland system where pink dolphins, black caiman, exotic birds, piranhas, and endangered fish live.

Starry Night Toad Found After Decades of Supposed Extinction

A Harlequin Toad that was lost to science for nearly three decades has emerged from the jungle.

A Trip to a Remote Island in California to Hunt for Big Black Sea Bass

It’s an unusually calm morning for Captain Jim Smith, owner of Ventura Dive & Sport, and lifelong seaman. He’s on board the Raptor, ferrying a boatload of divers and snorkeling enthusiasts over to the Channel Islands, an archipelago of islands that are anchored just off the Southern Californian coast, in the stunningly remote Channel Islands National Park.

Environmental Initiatives Offer Hope for Critically Endangered Spider Monkeys

How one organization’s community-centric approach to conservation created a new generation of environmental activists.