Lake’s only pair of manatees survive winter as manatees die at record pace
As Florida manatees are dying at a record pace from the cold winter and algae blooms, an unlikely sea cow duo has surprised researchers for their persistence in braving frigid temperatures to survive.
A manatee dubbed Leesburg — after the Lake County city where she was first spotted in 2015 — was seen by researchers from the group Sea to Shore Alliance alongside her 6-month-old calf several times this year in the St. Johns River. Their survival comes as 166 manatees have died this year through March 2, according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
“There’s several springs we monitor, and we’ve seen her multiple times,” said Sea to Shore researcher Monica Ross, who dispatches alongside colleagues on boats to observe the manatees every year.
Leesburg is one of the first manatees recorded on the Harris Chain of Lakes, about 35 miles west of Orlando. The first-time manatee mother, distinguished by a boat propeller scar on her back, has amazed observers by surviving the winter with her newborn.
Florida’s manatee counts have doubled in the past two decades to about 6,600, but the marine mammals are still dying by the hundreds every year. In 2017, 538 manatees died in Florida, a 13 percent increase from 472 deaths the year before.
The trademark Florida species is designated as endangered by the federal government. Jeff Ruch, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility executive director, has said he fears for the manatees’ future.
“Manatees may join polar bears as one of the first iconic victims of extinction in the wild from climate change.”
When Leesburg was first spotted in the Harris Chain of Lakes by recreational boaters in 2015, officials were skeptical of eyewitness accounts until a photograph of the sea cow and another male manatee convinced them.
Her companion didn’t make it through the harsh winter leading in to 2016; he was found dead at the Moss Bluff Lock in the Ocklawaha River, north of Lake Griffin.
Leesburg was also found suffering from the cold temperatures and transported to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa for rehab. Three months later and weighing a healthy 1,100 pounds, Leesburg was dropped off in the St. Johns River in Putnam County nearly 80 miles away.
But she insisted on being in Lake County. Astonished researchers tracked her by GPS as she bolted from Putnam back to the Harris Chain.
Since then, an alligator ripped off her tracking collar and a boat propeller slashed her back, scarring her but distinguishing her from the other manatees researchers count every year. It’s how Sea to Shore was able to identify her among other manatees in the St. Johns River this winter, Ross said.
After she has endured so many trials, no one is sure if Leesburg and her newborn will return to Lake as some of the only documented manatees to make it their home.
“When a female has her first calf, she tends to change her pattern,” Ross said. “So she might go back to the Lake County area, but if she does she might not stay the time she did there before.”