Manatees show up in force after Florida Power and Light turns on water heaters

Despite near-freezing temperatures this week, there was relatively good news for manatees on Wednesday.

Cold-related deaths in 2011 dropped 60 percent from their record high of 282 in 2010, according to data released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Wednesday.

Overall though, 453 manatee deaths were reported in Florida waters last year from all causes, making 2011 the second most deadly year on record for manatee deaths. About 25 percent of those deaths were due to cold weather.

Although lower than the 766 deaths in 2010 -- the most deadly year since wildlife officials began keeping records -- cold-related deaths in early 2011 set the stage for a third straight year of high mortality rates for the endangered species.

"Over the next few years we will use data from monitoring programs to better understand any long-term implications for the population," said Gil McRae, director of the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. "We will continue to work with our partners to enhance the availability of natural warm water sites, which are important habitats for the species' survival."

The manatee is a native species found throughout Florida. Protections were first enacted in 1893 and today they are protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Adults are typically 9-10 feet long and can weigh 1,000 pounds.

Also on Wednesday, Florida Power & Light officials turned on water warmers at the site of their former power plant in Riviera Beach, near the Palm Beach inlet. Although the plant was demolished last year, FPL must warm the water when it falls below 65 degrees until it completes construction of its new natural gas facility in 2014.

The warmers were turned on about 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday and by Wednesday afternoon several dozen manatees were lolling about in the warm water at the plant.

The site has been a favorite hot spot for manatees and after the new power plant opens, visitors will once again be able to come and view them there. The south side of the plant site will have a separate entrance and viewing platforms where visitors will be able to watch manatees, which often gather around the warm-water discharges from power plants during the winter months.

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