The good news: the latest manatee survey done this week found the highest single-day count since surveys began in 1994. The bad news: heavy boat traffic over Memorial Day Weekend is rapidly approaching.
An aerial survey conducted Tuesday, May 22, of local waterways turned up 189 of the endangered marine mammals, according to Dr. Gerry Pinto, a research scientist with Jacksonville University’s Marine Science Research Institute, which does the counts under contract with the city in support of the Jacksonville Manatee Protection Plan.
The last high count was in 2005, with 170 manatees, and the low was 55, as recently as 2009.
“It’s nice to see an endangered species increasing in the area, but we’re also starting up the boating season so we could see more manatee watercraft fatalities,” he said. “So this is a good opportunity to educate and caution people to be especially careful in shallow areas near shorelines in the St. Johns River and Intracoastal Waterway.”
Most of the animals are concentrated south of the Interstate 295 Buckman Bridge, he noted, with heavier populations near Doctors Lake, Julington Creek and Mandarin Point.
Pinto urged boaters to wear polarized sunglasses, which decrease glare and make the manatees easier to spot. He also said to look for telltale swirl patterns in the water. A trail of swirls can indicate the direction the animals are swimming, he said. Also, look for mating groups consisting of a group of males following a female. And before starting your motor, check the area for manatees around the prop, he said.
Boaters should be mindful of manatee zone maps, speed-zone signs and buoys. Manatees are protected by state and federal law. Anything that disrupts a manatee’s normal behavior is a violation of law, punishable under federal law up to a $50,000 fine, one-year imprisonment, or both.