Wildlife Experts Work to Save Starving Manatees as Dangerous Cold Snap Looms

A Florida manatee.
A manatee swims in a ZooTampa recovery pool. EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI / AFP via Getty Images

As Florida braces for a cold snap, wildlife experts are concerned about the state’s struggling manatees

Florida’s manatees are already starving because their preferred food, seagrass, is being smothered by algae encouraged by nutrient pollution. Arctic air approaching South Florida this weekend could put an even greater strain on the marine mammals. 

“This is really going to be a test,” Save the Manatees Club Executive Director Pat Rose told WESH2. “Because if we were looking at really healthy manatees, they would be able to withstand this cold that’s coming up as long as that warm water continued to be produced.”

Florida is expected to see its coldest temperatures in years on Sunday after a Nor’easter is expected to push Arctic air south, WFLA reported. The Tampa Bay area could see temperatures between 25 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit Sunday morning. Across South Florida, temperatures will be 32 degrees or below inland and in the 40s along the coast, USA Today reported. 

This is a problem for manatees, who can’t survive in water colder than 67 degrees Fahrenheit, CBS12 noted.

They can develop a type of frostbite known as “cold stress,” ZooTampa’s Lisa Smith told WFLA. 

“You’ll see really bad lesions all over their bodies. Some whitening of their skin,” Smith said. “They have to migrate into warm water sites, so that’s why if you’re around locally you’ll see them in power plants and springs and if they don’t make it there that’s when they’ll get the cold stress.”

However, scientists and wildlife officials are not going to let the manatees suffer without a fight. The cold snap comes a week after the first manatees were fed in a pilot program to supplement their seagrass diet with lettuce and cabbage, AP News reported at the time.

“There are a number of things that are happening in terms of rescues, in terms of trying to supplemental feeding that’s got a good start as of last week. But it’s got a long ways to go,” Rose told WESH2.

For now, the feeding is taking place at the Florida Power & Light plant in the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast, AP News reported. Between 25 and 35 manatees were spotted near the feeding station last Friday. Because the plant discharges warm water that the manatees prefer during colder months, experts hope the cold snap may actually bring more manatees to the feeding area, CBS12 reported. 

The feeding program comes in response to the record 1,101 manatee deaths last year. And Rose still worries the cold snap won’t help the situation.

“We are going to have hundreds of manatees that are already coming in malnourished and certainly along the way to starvation. So we are expecting a significant number of additional mortality and need for rescue for those manatees that can be found soon enough,” Rose told WESH2. 

Anyone who sees a struggling manatee can call the Fish and Wildlife Commission hotline at 888-404-3922.

Both the cold and the starvation faced by manatees are caused by human pollution. The nutrients choking their preferred seagrass come from wastewater and factory farms, while the climate crisis is making intense nor’easters like this coming weekend’s more common.  

The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the ocean, WFLA pointed out, and this paradoxically provides fuel for serious winter storms. 

“Warmer sea surface temperatures (SSTs) can contribute to more moisture in the atmosphere, the more moisture the more it can rain or snow,” MIT climate scientist Dr. Judah Cohen told WFLA. “Also, if cold air passes off warming ocean temperatures it could favor more convection that can produce heavy precipitation.”

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter