Why Do Manatees Migrate?

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Manatees are typically migrating animals. During the summer, they reside in shallow, slow-moving rivers, bays, estuaries and coastal waters areas—whether fresh, brackish or salt water—while traveling freely around the Gulf Coast. In the summer months, manatees are found as far west as Alabama and Louisiana and as far north as Virginia and the Carolinas.

Evading the Cold

But in winter, November through March, the water is unusually cold (below 70 degrees Fahrenheit) in many of the Gulf of Mexico areas, forcing the animals to migrate in search of warm water places for survival. The animals travel through passageways until they reach areas with warm water, mostly finding their way into Florida, where the temperature in the springs remain at a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. In the summer, that may be cooler than surrounding waters, but in the winter the temperature is high enough and ideal for manatees.

Need for Warmth

Manatees migrate because they need warm water to survive. Though a typical manatee weighs half a ton and is 13 feet long, it has relatively little body fat and a very low metabolic rate compared to other marine mammals. Hence, manatees are not able to tolerate temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period of time. Actually, those affected by cold are not able to produce enough metabolic heat to make up for the amount of heat lost to the environment.

Cold Stress Syndrome

Extended exposure to cold temperatures causes a cascade of clinical disease processes called the cold stress syndrome (CSS). This syndrome is characterized by a slow-down in metabolism, leading to digestion problems, reduced appetite and weight loss. In turn, affected manatees have weakened immunity, making them susceptible to environmental toxins and pathogens for a variety of diseases, such as intestinal infections, pneumonia and viral infections. Therefore, chronic exposure to cold is fatal to manatees and predisposes their entire population to danger and decline. Aware that they are susceptible to cold-related disease, manatees migrate away from cold areas and gather near warm water sources in winter, including natural springs and warm water effluents of power plants.

Fixed Wintering Areas

Interestingly, individual manatees usually return to the same wintering areas year after year. Of course, this depends on the areas they were introduced to by their parents as young calves—and a matter of memory of their migration routes between the summer and winter seasons. A huge number of manatees frequent the natural springs of Homosassa and Crystal River, though some are found in the Banana and Indian Rivers, St. Johns River and the Intracoastal waters of east coast Florida.

Manatees have also been known to migrate and gather near power plants, seeking refuge in the warm water outflows from discharge channels. Apart from just providing the warm water these animals seek out in colder months, power plant effluents play a critical role in their protection. In past cold seasons, flocks of more than 500 manatees have been spotted basking in the heated water near power plants. And while historically manatees migrated only to the relatively warm freshwater springs or far enough south to avoid colder water, nowadays more than 60-percent of the population has grown used to spending the winter near the balmy discharges from industrial plants.

When do they migrate?

November is the month when manatees begin their inland migration. It is at this time of the year when manatees search for warm water areas to stay during the duration of the winter and to help them survive the cold. These areas are usually freshwater springs, bays and rivers, and the outflows of power plants. Manatees travel to these areas through canals and rivers, using travel corridors or passageways to move back and forth between summer and winter months. This is why boaters and personal watercraft users should be cautious and slow their speed along these water bodies to avoid harming manatees.

Swimming with Manatees

Crystal River, Florida is one of the areas where manatees migrate during the winter. When the cold season sets in, hundreds of manatees flock the warm water springs where the temperature is a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit. The larger number of animals huddled together makes it easier for swimmers to find, see and swim with manatees in the winter—though there are also resident manatees that you can find and swim with at any time of year. More importantly, Crystal River is one of the only areas in the world where you can legally interact and snorkel with manatees.

At Captain Mike’s, we offer manatee tours in Crystal River, Florida that are designed to deliver remarkable and gratifying experiences. Our tours are guided by knowledgeable, experienced and certified captains and always guarantee that every person on board sees and snorkels with these gentle creatures. We also respect, protect and care for these animals and their habitat and ensure that all our manatee tours are in line with the latest rules, guidelines and research on the animals. For more information on manatees and manatee tours, visit the Captain Mike’s Swimming with the Manatees website.

Swimming with the Manatees boasts the best water adventure in Crystal River, Florida with lots of things to do for you and your family. For more information, contact us online, or call us at (352) 571-1888.

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