PINELLAS COUNTY, FL — While canoeing in the waters off Pinellas County beaches, Michael McCarthy happened upon a rare sight.
McCarthy, a marine photographer and videographer as well as the owner of See Through Canoe in Seminole, has seen just about every marine critter that inhabits the Gulf Coast.
But this was the first time McCarthy had seen a mother manatee with twin calves swimming on either side of her.
The last time a mother manatee and her twins were spotted in the Tampa Bay area, according to the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, was April 15, 2016, when resident Karl Nelson captured a mother and her twins on video in the Grand Canal along Siesta Key.
He sent the video to Mote and the staff biologists recognized the mother immediately. Four years earlier, staff from Mote and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rescued that same manatee also accompanied by a calf. Mote had been tracking the mother manatee, named Tomo-Bello, for years when she was discovered in 2012 with a wound on top of her head.
Tomo-Bello and her calf were transported to ZooTampa at Lowry Park where marine veterinarians discovered the open wound had allowed toxins from red tide to enter her bloodstream, causing her to behave unusually.
Tomo-Bella and her calf were nursed back to health and released in September 2012. Four years later, Mote received the video from Nelson showing Tomo-Bello fully recovered and swimming with newborn twin calves. Biologists said she's given birth eight times but these were her first twins.
Twins occur in only 1.4 to 4 percent of all manatee births.
Throughout most of the year, the West Indian manatees that make their home off the coast of Florida can be found throughout the warm tropical waters of the Sunshine State.
But, in winter when temperatures dip, the giant whiskered mammals that weigh up to 100 pounds seek the warmer waters of Florida's rivers, springs and the warm-water discharge around power plants.
Southwest Florida has all the features necessary for manatees to thrive, including plenty of seagrass and other vegetation to munch on and warm-water refuges where they breed and give birth because manatees can't tolerate temperatures below 68 degrees for extended periods of time.
Protecting these gentle creatures is crucial to Florida's ecosystem, said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. That's one of the reasons she fought to obtain a $200,000 federal grant in 2020 for the David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center at ZooTampa at Lowry Park. The center cares for manatees that are sick or injured. Most injuries are caused by careless boaters who speed through manatee zones, leaving deep gouges from the boat motors on the backs and heads of the manatees.
Although, there are only about 6,300 West Indian manatees remaining in the waters around Florida, in 2017 they were removed from the federal endangered species list, a big mistake as far as Castor is concerned.
"The manatee should be relisted as an endangered species following the erroneous decision to remove them in 2017," she said. "The threats to the species and its habitat abound. We all must do our part to protect and care for our manatees, and I’m grateful to ZooTampa for their work. The $200,000 federal grant that I announced in October will support their rehabilitation efforts and ensure that all of us can continue to enjoy seeing these gentle giants in their natural habitats."
In the past year, Joe Couceiro, CEO of ZooTampa, said 15 manatees were rescued, rehabilitated and released back into Florida waters. He hopes the federal grant will allow the zoo to rescue even more manatees this year.
Other attempts to protect manatees include establishing state and federally designated sanctuaries like Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Plant in Apollo Beach, where manatees have been gathering since the early 1970s.
TECO constructed the Manatee Viewing Center along the discharge canal so residents can see and gain a greater appreciation for the gentle giants. However, the viewing center is closed this winter due to the coronavirus.
Federal funds and manatee protection zones, however, haven't prevented the deaths of hundreds of manatees each year. In 2019 alone, the Florida Fish and Conservation Commission reported that 290 manatees died. Of those, at least 52 were the result of boat collisions. Others were natural deaths, perinatal deaths and deaths due to cold stress or red tide. In many cases, however, veterinarians were unable to determine the cause of death during necropsies because the bodies were too decomposed.
In the space of one week in July, the FWC responded to three reports of orphaned manatee calves, who were alone for an extended period after the deaths of their mothers.
"This is a very important time of year for manatees, and we need the public’s help to make sure they get to their warm-water habitats safely and are not disturbed during the colder winter months” said Michelle Pasawicz, manatee management program lead with the FWC. “Injuries to manatees from boat strikes are more common this time of year, as migrating manatees venture into areas frequented by boaters. By going slow while on the water and viewing manatees from a safe and respectful distance, you can help conserve them so future generations are able to enjoy these amazing animals.”
The manatee protection zones are marked by waterway signs. Maps of manatee protection zones are also available online (click on data and maps).
"Natural warm-water habitats, such as Florida’s springs, are critical to the survival of manatees during the winter because they can’t tolerate water temperatures lower than 68 degrees," Pasawicz said. "Disturbing manatees at warm-water sites may cause them to leave those areas where they are safe and could put them at risk."
Ways You Can Help Manatees
Observe manatees from a distance to limit disturbance.
Follow posted manatee protection zones.
Wear polarized sunglasses to spot them moving, grazing and resting in the water.
Keep a lookout for the circular “footprints” or ripples they leave on the surface of the water.
Follow manatee viewing guidelines and always observe manatees from a respectful distance.
Don’t feed or water manatees. Doing so is illegal and can put manatees at risk.
Report injured, entangled, orphaned or dead manatees to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922), #FWC on a cell phone or text Tip@MyFWC.com.
Purchase a manatee decal or license plate, which supports the FWC’s manatee conservation efforts.
Contribute to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida’s Marine Mammal Fund.
Obey slow-speed zones.
Keep trash, fishing lines and plastics out of the water. These can endanger manatees and other marine life.
Courtesy See Through Canoe/Michael McCarthy