By Ashley Collins
Greater Fort Lauderdale’s tropical waterscape draws residents and tourists year-round, especially when the sun is shining and humidity is high. However you enjoy the amazing waterways—boating, jet skiing, or kayaking—keep in mind that you’re not alone.
We’ve got an abundance of aquatic wildlife in our waterways, like the Florida manatee. Manatees are marine mammals found throughout Florida, and in the winter time, are often spotted in warmer “shallow, slow-moving rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals, and coastal areas,” according to Save the Manatee Club. You may also come across sea turtles, who lay eggs at the beach near the seashore every summer. So how can you still enjoy all this area has to offer while respecting your animal friends?
Slow Down, Stay at a Distance in Manatee Land
A total of 606 Florida manatees reportedly died in 2019, and a majority of the deaths were mainly caused by watercraft collisions, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). As a result, the commission has rules set in place to protect these threatened species by restricting “the speed and operation of vessels where necessary to protect manatees from harmful collisions with vessels and from harassment.” That includes the addition of slow speed signs found in manatee protection zones in effect from April 1 to November 15.
“Spring is one of the best times to be out on the water but it’s also a very active time for manatees,” Ron Mezich, who heads the FWC’s Imperiled Species Management Section, said in a press release. “Boaters can make a big difference and avoid injuring or killing manatees by slowing down and being alert.”
If you come across these aquatic herbivores, Save the Manatee, a Florida non-profit dedicated to protecting these mammals, recommends practicing passive observation. What does this mean exactly? Let’s say you’re swimming or paddleboarding and spot a manatee or two, instead of rushing towards them to get closer, you must maintain a two-kayak length distance, and watch from afar. You should also avoid feeding or giving water to them as it would interfere with their natural feeding pattern.
If you’re on a boat or personal watercraft, you can take extra precautions by wearing polarized sunglasses, which helps reduce glare from the water’s surface, making it easier to spot any nearby manatees. Also be vigilant of any large, circular patterns on the water or snouts and tails above the water’s surface; two tell-tale signs that manatees are present. If you happen to spot a manatee nearby, remain at a safe distance, which is at least 50 feet away. For safe observation, cut your engine, the conservation group suggests. To avoid manatees altogether, stay in the deeper water channels.
Why so many human-related manatee deaths? Possibly a rise in ecotourism, according to a Save the Manatee op-ed, which goes on to say, “... There are dozens of incidents daily of people posting pictures to social media of themselves chasing down manatees, petting manatees, floating kayaks on top of manatees, swimming in between mothers and calves, feeding manatees, and giving them water.”
Sea Turtles Just as Threatened
Florida’s sea turtle population is just as susceptible to human-related activities as their manatee friends. All five sea turtle species in Florida are documented as endangered or threatened, according to the FWC. As a result, the state, including the City of Fort Lauderdale, has rules set in place to limit coastal artificial lighting that may confuse hatchlings, who use the natural light from the moon to reach the sea at night.
Turtle nesting season runs March through October, and according to the South Florida Audubon Society, these three species are found in Broward beaches: loggerhead sea turtles, green sea turtles, and leatherback sea turtles.
How can you protect turtles while still enjoying the beach? The City of Fort Lauderdale recommends people avoid marked-off sea turtle nest areas, littering, and swimming in the ocean at night during nesting season.
How to Help
As far as manatees go, the FWC said “if you see a sick, stranded, injured, orphaned, or dead manatee, or a manatee that is being harassed,” call Wildlife Alert at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or send an email or text to Tip@myfwc.com. To aid in the protection of manatees, visit Save the Manatee for more information.
To report turtle-related emergencies, like injury or death, call Sea Turtle Emergency line (954) 328-0580. For non-emergency events, contact Broward County's Natural Resources Planning and Management Division at (954) 519-1255. To join sea turtle conservation efforts, check out advocacy groups like Sea Turtle Oversight Protection (STOP) or South Florida Audubon Society.