Manatees and Watersports Donít Mix

At least six manatees were observed in the Water Sports Zone, along with boats approaching manatees at high rates of speed. (Photos by Katie Tripp.)

By Dr. Katie Tripp
Director of Science and Conservation, Save the Manatee Club

On June 13th, Pat Rose, SMC's Executive Director, and I rented a helicopter to fly us over Kings Bay in Citrus County, Florida, to document manatee and boat activity in the watersports zone (WSZ) around Buzzard Island. We were in the air for less than an hour in the late morning, but even during this short time, before the peak boating hours of the day, we witnessed activities that confirmed what we both already knew: that the WSZ is a danger to manatees. We observed at least six manatees in the WSZ during our time in the air and observed boats approaching manatees at high rates of speed. 

Helicopter Over the Water Sports Zone

See a slide show documenting Pat and Katie's flight over the Water Sports Zone. Warning: Slide show contains a graphic photo of an injured manatee. (Photo by Stacy Dunn.)

One particularly tense moment came as a Jon boat motored south along the east side of Buzzard Island. There were two manatees (an adult with a calf) that we had observed near the southeast corner of the island on previous passes. The two manatees had moved east, away from the island, and looked like they were going to attempt to cross the bay. As they moved east, the Jon boat continued moving fast to the south, on a collision course for the two manatees. The boat came within several yards of the manatees before making a hard turn and traveling back to the north. Meanwhile, the manatees, sensing the approaching boat, kicked up large mud plumes as they pumped their tails repeatedly in an attempt to move out of the boat’s path. I don’t know what made the boater change direction, but his sudden turn spared the manatees from a collision. This near miss took place in the same general location where, on July 4th, 2007, citizens found an adult female manatee with severe propeller wounds from a recent boat strike. This manatee, nicknamed “Patriot” by the citizens who watched over her that day, died before state wildlife officials could arrive and perform a rescue. 

What Pat and I observed that day was just a single example of what manatees deal with in Kings Bay on a daily basis from May 1st through August 31st, when the WSZ is open to high speed activity. While other areas of the bay remain idle or slow speed during the summer, this regulation is only as good as the boaters’ willingness to comply. This same day, during the afternoon, Pat and I witnessed two different boats violating an idle speed zone adjacent to the WSZ, just moments after seeing manatees in this area. Because some boaters fail to understand or comply with the boundaries of the WSZ, the entire bay is made unsafe for manatees.

Kings Bay provides refuge to manatees during the winter with its warm water springs, sanctuaries, and restrictions on boat speed. However, with the turning of a calendar page, this bay becomes dangerous and even deadly for the manatees that live there.  Manatees throughout Florida are forced to deal with ever increasing boat traffic, but the situation in Kings Bay is especially troubling. The current rules are leaving these manatees grossly unprotected and the time has long passed to eliminate the WSZ and provide manatees with year-round protection from speeding watercraft in Kings Bay.

What You Can Do:

Save the Manatee Club staff will continue to work on this issue to make sure that manatees are protected in Kings Bay. We may need your help in the future, so please sign up for our E-mail Action Alert Team. We'll send information on manatee-related issues and let you know how you can help.

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