Arguably Florida's most gentle and graceful creatures, manatees continue to be reported in Lake County waterways in increasing numbers. In order to create awareness about their presence and aid in protecting the slow-moving giants, Mount Dora Buzz sought answers about local manatees from Nicole Bartlett, research assistant at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute.
BUZZ: How many manatees are estimated to be in Lake County waterways? BARTLETT: Prior to 2015, no manatees had ever been reported in the Chain of Lakes. Based on our photo identification research efforts since 2016, we have been able to identify over a dozen uniquely marked animals, with estimates of at least another dozen using the waterways upriver from Moss Bluff during the summertime. We know some individuals that use Silver River during the winter will travel upriver into Lake Griffin but how often and how many is still unknown at this time.
BUZZ: Is this an increase from previous years? We are getting more reports of manatees sighted in Lake County than previous years, but that doesn't necessarily mean there are more manatees present. We, and our county and state agency partners, have been doing a lot of outreach to try to get people to report sightings so we can have a clearer understanding of when manatees are using the lake system. But manatees are included in the fossil record within the Ocklawaha River system from Silver River to the St. Johns River. They have been here a very long time.
BUZZ: How many of these manatees are tagged and tracked? We have two manatees tagged for the Ocklawaha project. Neither one is in the lower river system at the moment. It's one of the risks of tagging wild animals: they don't always stay in an area and definitely do not do what you expect.
BUZZ: Do the manatees find their way back to open waters from Lake County? If so, where do they typically go? Absolutely! Most of the manatees who use Lake County during the summer will lock back through into the Ocklawaha. Some will use Silver River for the winter, some will continue into the St. Johns River, and use various springs during the winter. We have a few animals we have identified, with the help of USGS, who travel as far south as Ft. Lauderdale during the winter. Currently, one animal who used the upper Ocklawaha is at Hilton Head Island.
BUZZ: How many sightings have been in Lake Dora and/or the Dora Canal? I have found four in our database. There are probably more, but if they don’t get reported to us or FWC, we don’t usually hear about them. There are a couple more sightings in the AB canal, and moving further into Lake Carlton.
BUZZ: One was spotted in the water between Lake Dora and Lake Beauclaire. Is this an animal you may be familiar with? Without photos, I can't say for sure. We did have a tagged animal, Trevluc, who explored the area a few years ago, but he was sadly killed by a boat strike in Lake Griffin last year. I've seen two recent reports of manatees in that area, one in the AB canal. We had at least one manatee reported in Lake Apopka during the winter. Winter sightings are very important, because the water temperature gets too cold for manatees so they must have access to springs to survive.
BUZZ: Is there a particular reason the manatees head inland? What do they eat in the local lakes? Manatees like to explore. They will peek their heads into every nook and cranny, into places you would swear they couldn't fit, in some cases. And they like to eat. It's entirely possible that animals are entering the lake system in search of more food sources, especially given reduction of submerged vegetation in the St. Johns River after the most recent hurricanes and of course due to what's happening on the east coast. The lakes are a manatee buffet, and like us, they seem to have preferences. One submerged vegetation species, coontail, might be considered the chocolate of the manatee world. I've seen some really go after the pennywort. I once saw two manatees plow through head after head of water lettuce like a pie-eating contest. If it's green, they'll at least sample it.
BUZZ: Should boaters in Lake County do anything different in the lakes and waterways due to the potential presence of manatees? Manatees spend most of their time in the shallows along shorelines eating and sleeping. Slowing down in these areas, and just keeping an eye out for them would really benefit the manatees. When entering/exiting and within the canals that interchange the lake systems, remember manatees are also using these bodies of water to move between systems. Stay in the middle, travel at a moderate, safe speed and slow down near shoreline edges, especially where there is surface vegetation.
BUZZ: Are there any laws that protect manatees? Manatees are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. It is illegal to harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap or capture a manatee, and it is also illegal to harass, annoy, or molest manatees. Harassment is defined as an intentional or negligent act that significantly disrupts normal behavioral patterns, which are not limited to breeding, feeding or sheltering. In other words, there are laws which prohibit feeding and watering along with interactions which disturb manatees while they are breeding and resting.
Anyone that spots a manatee in a Lake County waterway is encouraged to report the day and location of the sighting to firstname.lastname@example.org.