February 8, 2023 | 9 minutes read
Manatee Lagoon: A Guide to Seeing Manatees in Florida
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What was once a parking lot, Manatee Lagoon – An FPL (Florida Power & Light Company) Eco-Discovery Center, is now on a mission to educate the public about manatees and why we should commit to conserving them.
While speaking to Rachel Shanker, B.S., M.S., the Conservation Liaison & Educator for the center, she explained to us the importance of restoring the Lake Worth Lagoon ecosystem and what was threatening the species’ survival.
Sadly, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the survival of Florida manatees is under threat today. Researchers say it’s happening from mass starvation as pollution and environmental degradation destroy seagrass populations that these animals feed on throughout Florida, in particular in the Indian River Lagoon.
Organizations such as Save the Manatee Club point to growing human populations and commercial developments, which seem to be the main catalysts for the decline in manatees and their food sources in South Florida. Moreover, our lack of education about them and their situation means that many people are unaware of the challenges these beloved and iconic marine mammals continue to face.
Let’s learn a bit more about these marvelous creatures and how we can support their survival.
Manatee Lagoon – An FPL Eco-Discovery Center is a free educational center that offers numerous activities and programs to engage the general public and teach them about these threatened animals. These include school group tours, family visits, interactive exhibits, and yoga sessions held on their private viewing platform.
Located in West Palm Beach, Florida, Manatee Lagoon grants visitors the chance to view these gentle giants up close while they hang out in the warm water outflows of Florida Power & Light Company’s Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center. Sounds impressive, right? It certainly is, and it has come a long way.
Before 2016, when Manatee Lagoon first opened, members of the public would come for a manatee viewing next to the clean warm-water outflow of the power plant. However, this public access was stopped after security concerns related to 9/11.
When restrictions lifted, FPL honored the public’s love of manatees and created Manatee Lagoon in accordance with the company’s environmental sustainability goals.
Rachel explains, “At this gorgeous facility, our mission is to educate the public all about manatees and the Lake Worth Lagoon, the body of water right next to us, in order to inspire the public to conserve and protect all of Florida’s wildlife for future generations.”
At the heart of sustainability and conservation is education, and by bringing in more than 190,000 visitors a year, Manatee Lagoon is proving how ecotourism can be helpful to the species’ survival.
The center has also partnered with Florida Atlantic University and hosts lecturers and educators. The center has also constructed a program that enables students of specific fields to work at Manatee Lagoon part-time and learn on the job. These students are called “Manatee Masters” and serve as docents for the facility.
After the drastic decline and mortality events of manatee populations that occurred between 2020 and 2021, Florida Power & Light Company staff members were deeply concerned by what had happened.
So, on behalf of Manatee Lagoon, they spoke with FWC and asked for advice on what more could be done.
They simply responded, “We need more hands,” and that’s why Rachel Shanker now has her role as Conservation Liaison & Educator. Not only does she go out and help FWC with hands-on rescues and releases of manatees – in her role, she also helps Manatee Lagoon provide its educational programs and resources to local residents and visitors.
Manatees, often affectionately known as sea cows, inhabit a range of areas, including rivers, canals, bays, and estuaries. They happily live in fresh, saline, or brackish waters. They are found in the Amazonian River, the coastline of west Africa, and the east coast of North America.
Florida estuaries and freshwater lakes, however, are famous for their manatee populations as they once provided vast quantities of seagrass and aquatic vegetation – their primary food source.
Manatees don’t like cold water and migrate due to seasonal changes in temperature. In summer months, they remain in Florida’s coastal waters and riverways. Since they migrate along the Gulf of Mexico and north along the Atlantic coast, people also often spot them in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and sometimes as far as Texas.
During the winter, typically between November and March, manatees remain within warmer water areas, such as springs or discharge areas of power plants, and do not tend to move around much.
Their cousins, the dugongs, live in patches throughout the Indian Ocean and Tropical Pacific and are also endangered. They look superficially similar, with the major exception of having a tail more like a whale, while manatees have tails like a giant beaver.
Not long ago, they had an older cousin, the Steller’s sea cow, which was a giant version that browsed on kelp forests from Baja through Alaska before it succumbed to human hunting pressures.
During winter months, manatees follow an annual migratory route that brings them to Florida’s warmer waters and power plant discharge areas. They frequent Palm Beach and aggregate at the clean warm water outflows near the FPL Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center.
In and out of the manatee season, they frequent waterways in Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Sarasota, Ocala, Salt Springs, and Indian River Lagoon.
The largest manatee ever recorded was 13 feet long and weighed more than 3,500 pounds, which comparatively is the same weight as a Chevrolet. However, their average weight is 1,000 pounds, and they average 9-10 feet in length, which is still pretty big!
Although you’ll never see a manatee on land, they do tend to show their faces and come up for air every 5 minutes. This does, however, differ due to their activity in the water. While resting or sleeping, they can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes.
A group of manatees is usually called an aggregation or a herd. They usually group together during mating season, surrounding a food source, or in warm waters like the springs or power plant outflows.
After impregnating the female, males do not take any responsibility for their young. So, it’s all down to the mother. Once they are born, calves will nurse underwater and begin to eat plants a few weeks after birth. They usually stay by their mothers’ sides for up to two years after birth, learning how to survive and behave by copying them.
These large animals are herbivores. They can spend up to 8 hours a day searching for and eating seagrass and other aquatic plants.
The Florida manatee eats over 60 species of plants on average, including mangrove leaves, shoal grass, manatee grass, and invasive water hyacinth, to name a few.
Seagrass is a manatee’s favorite and, therefore, a dietary staple. “Manatees can eat macroalgae too, but they choose not to because there are not as many nutrients in it compared to seagrass,” says Rachel.
A manatee is capable of eating up to 10% of its own body weight in aquatic vegetation a day. This equates to up to 100 pounds of seagrass, their preferred food source, in a single day.
Seagrass provides up to 70% of food as well as a habitat for sea life in Florida, especially its manatee populations.
Being a primary producer at the base of an ecosystem, if it were to reduce, then the rest of the ecosystem’s dynamics would alter drastically in a dominoes effect.
Both in captivity and the wild, they can live up to and over 60 years of age. The oldest recorded was a West Indian Manatee born in 1948 in captivity. He was called “Snooty” and lived to 69! It’s quite possible that others have lived longer in the wild.
Surprisingly, manatees don’t have any predators that regularly hunt and kill them. Sharks or killer whales could, but they don’t tend to inhabit the same waters.
Their biggest threat is humans, particularly their boats. The coastal areas of Florida, in particular, are very busy with boat traffic, especially in the canals. Unfortunately, manatees are not very quick to get out of their way.
As a result, 20-25% of mortalities are due to boat propellors and crashes. To reduce such mortalities, people boating are advised to drive very slowly in shallows, canals, and rivers, keeping an eye out for manatees that can often look like floating logs.
Lacking a definitive number, about 5,700 manatees remain within Florida’s waters, and over 13,000 roam worldwide, according to FWC.
Human activity and land use destroy the vegetation manatees eat and rely on. According to Rachel Shanker, this “is essentially an event of mass mortality where an extra high number of marine mammals, in this case, manatees, are dying off.”
“It is definitely poor water quality through different factors that is causing that decline,” stated Rachel. Researchers say the conversion of native vegetation to farmland, coastal development, loss of oyster beds, and poor water treatment have all changed the water quality. It is under scientific investigation which issues are most problematic, and it likely varies from one watershed to the next.
Consequently, Indian River Lagoon has lost up to 90% of its seagrass populations, which negatively affects the survival of manatees. On top of that, the increasing numbers of boats in their territory, combined with poor boating practices at times, result in many manatee strikes, which can wound or kill these sensitive, slow-moving creatures.
Manatees play a key role within their ecosystem. By eating up to one hundred pounds of vegetation a day, they also produce a fair amount of excrement that fertilizes the surrounding environment and stabilizes populations of seagrass colonies in Florida’s waters.
In addition, they eat invasive species, such as water hyacinths, controlling their reproduction from negatively affecting the ecosystem’s equilibrium.
The peak season to see manatees in Florida’s Intracoastal waterway is between April and October. When temperatures drop, they head to Florida springs, where the water remains slightly warmer at around 70 degrees.
Manatee Lagoon – An FPL Eco-Discovery Center is a free educational attraction, enabling people to view these amazing creatures up close on their facility’s observation deck.
The facility has Manatee Masters staff members on hand to educate visitors all about the animals and how to protect Florida’s environment.
The center has free parking on site, hands-on exhibits, and a gift shop. While at the location, you can also see FPL solar trees and solar canopies. They can serve as a great opportunity to teach children about renewable energy.
The education center also has two live manatee cams that enable people all over the world to spot manatees swimming within the center’s dedicated area when the manatees are on site.
The facility’s observation deck is the ideal location to view manatees utilizing the clean warm water discharges from the adjacent power plant.
Governing their own time and living in the wild, there is no specific time of day to go to Manatee Lagoon and see a manatee at the visitor center.
Manatee Lagoon has no admission price and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the manatee season, November 15 to March 31. From April 1 to November 14, it opens from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and remains closed on Mondays.
Manatee Lagoon is located near Lake Worth Lagoon at 6000 N. Flagler Drive, West Palm Beach, FL 33407. To reach it, take U.S. Highway 1 and turn east into 58th Street in West Palm Beach. Next, turn north into N. Flagler Drive. The entrance to the center will be on your right.
While at Manatee Lagoon, if you see manatees or any other form of wildlife, do not feed them. The animals must stick to their natural diet and may choke on any other food they may be given. Keep your own food within the picnic area on site.
Also, make sure not to leave litter that may blow into the water and be quiet when in close proximity to manatees, so they don’t get scared.
Would you like to explore Florida and its beautiful flora and fauna? Check out the eco tours WildVoice offers around South Florida and Florida Keys. We highly value the safety and satisfaction of our customers while providing sustainable adventure tours.