TREASURE COAST, Fla. - When winter weather gets chilly, we tend to huddle up at home, avoiding the wind and storms.
Manatees do the same, which makes it easier for us to get a look at Florida's official state marine mammal.
Florida has about 5,000 manatees, and although most are migratory — traveling as far north as Virginia and as far west as Texas — there is a population of 300 to 400 that stay along the Treasure Coast all year.
Because they are a subtropical species susceptible to a potentially fatal condition known as cold stress syndrome, manatees can't tolerate prolonged exposure to water cooler than 68 degrees.
Lesley Vincent-Ryder, education coordinator at the Manatee Observation and Education Center in Fort Pierce, said there were 392 documented manatee deaths in 2012, down from 2010 when more than 700 manatees died, many because of the extremely cold water.
Historically, they congregate in South Florida during the winter, in and around the warm waters of spring-fed creeks, which stay between 58 and 72 degrees year round. Development along the Florida coast has caused manatees to lose access to some of these springs.
However, manatees learned to find warm water flowing out of power plants that have been built along the coasts.
"Scientists believe that during the winter, manatees don't naturally go farther north than the St. Sebastian River," said Heather Stapleton, education director at the Environmental Learning Center near Wabasso. "Of course, their winter range has been artificially expanded by power plant discharges."
Because they're mammals, manatees also head to creeks and canals in search of fresh water to drink.
According to the Save the Manatee Club, sea cows get a lot of the fresh water they need from the aquatic plants they eat, but must return to fresh water every one to two weeks to drink. (So don't give manatees water from your garden hose. They can take care of their own freshwater needs.)
Manatees also head into creeks and canals looking for a place to rest, said Ellie Van Os, director of education and exhibits at the Stuart-based Florida Oceanographic Society.
"Winters in South Florida are windy," Van Os said, "and manatees are looking for a calm, secluded place to get out of the wind and water currents."
Van Os said the congregating manatees probably aren't looking for mates — at least not for a while.
"Manatees are warm blooded," she said, "so the winter isn't the time for them to start getting frisky. That will come when the weather gets a little warmer."
WHERE TO FIND MANATEES
The following are sites along the Treasure Coast where manatees congregate in the winter.
Indian River County
The spillway of the C-54 Canal from the manatee overlook on the north side of the canal in St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park (technically in Brevard County)
The Vero Beach Municipal Power Plant at Indian River Boulevard and 17th Street
Round Island County Park on State Road A1A just north of the St. Lucie County line on the barrier island
St. Lucie County
The Manatee Observation and Education Center along Moore's Creek on Indian River Drive in downtown Fort Pierce
Blind Creek, 4651 S. Ocean Drive on Hutchinson Island just north of the St. Lucie Nuclear Plant
Willoughby Creek at the St. Lucie Boulevard/Indian Street bridge across the creek on Indian Street east of U.S. 1
Creeks entering the St. Lucie River Estuary, including Krueger, Frazier and Poppleton creeks in Stuart and Bessey Creek in Palm City
MANATEE OBSERVATION RULES: LOOK BUT DON'T TOUCH
The cardinal rule when you come in contact with manatees: Look but don't touch. Here are some other guidelines for observing manatees.
Don't feed manatees or give them water. If manatees become accustomed to being around people, they can alter their behavior in the wild, perhaps causing them to lose their natural fear of boats and humans, which may make them more susceptible to harm.
Don't pursue or chase manatees. If a manatee avoids you, you should avoid it.
Never poke, prod or stab a manatee with your hands, feet or any object. Don't try to ride a manatee.
Give manatees space to move. Don't isolate or single out an individual manatee from its group, and don't separate a cow and her calf.
Avoid excessive noise and splashing if a manatee appears in your swimming area.
Use snorkel gear when attempting to watch manatees. The sound of bubbles from scuba gear may cause manatees to leave the area.
Do not enter areas designated as manatee refuges.
Abide by the posted speed zone signs while in areas known to have manatees present or when observations indicate manatees might be present.
Wear polarized sunglasses to reduce water surface glare. This will enable you to see manatees more easily.
Try to stay in deep-water channels. Manatees can be found in shallow, slow-moving rivers, estuaries, lagoons and coastal areas. Avoid boating over seagrass beds and shallow areas.
Remain at least
50 feet away from a manatee when operating a powerboat. Don't operate a boat over large concentrations of manatees.
Water ski in areas manatees do not use, or cannot enter, such as landlocked lakes.
Don't discard monofilament line, hooks or litter into the water. Manatees may ingest or become entangled in the debris and become injured or die. Note: Discarding monofilament fishing line into Florida waters is unlawful.
If you do hit a manatee while boating, call 888-404-FWCC (3922).
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission