A herd of mating manatees drew a crowd of curious onlookers Wednesday at South Lido Park. Mote Marine Laboratory scientists documented the herd.
Mating herds occur when multiple males attempt to mate with a female ready to conceive. The males pursue the female for up to several weeks. Often, as the female tries to evade her male suitors, the group can end up in shallow waters along beaches. This is normal behavior and not cause for alarm.
The recent herd included up to 18 manatees and was the third mating herd Mote scientists have documented in the past two weeks.
“The cool thing about this mating herd is that the focal female was 'Tomo-Bella' — a manatee that we've been documenting in local waters for over 20 years and that we helped rescue and release in 2012,” said Jennifer Helseth Johnson, staff biologist in Mote’s Manatee Research Program, who documented the herd along with Kerri Scolardi, Mote Manatee Research Program biologist.
Tomo-Bella was rescued along with her calf, “Sara-Bella,” by staff from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Mote in July 2012 because she had a fresh wound on her head and was showing unusual behavior. She was taken to Lowry Park Zoo and found to have red-tide toxins in her blood. She stayed there until September, when Mote helped FWC and Lowry staff release her and her calf at Ken Thompson Park on City Island, Sarasota. This mating herd marks the second time Mote has seen Tomo-Bella since her release.
Scientists in Mote’s Manatee Research Program took photos of the herd so they could later try to identify the individual manatees in the herd to also gathered data about the manatees’ behavior and the environment where the mating herd was located. Documenting mating herds is one of the many ways that Mote’s Manatee Research Program learns about these iconic marine mammals.
For decades, the program has been the leading non-governmental organization doing manatee research in the U.S., working to answer questions about manatee biology, health and behavior to better understand the species and to inform management decisions and educate the public. The West Indian manatee is an endangered species protected under state and federal laws, so it’s important to respect these animals in local waters.
Boaters and beachgoers should give these herds of mating manatees a wide berth — for safety and for the manatees. Mote staff have witnessed people getting into the water and trying to interact with these herds, but doing so can disrupt the animals’ normal mating behavior and it could also result in humans being injured.
Mating activity involves bouts of violent thrashing and rolling, particularly when the animals are in shallow water. Adult manatees can weigh more than 3,000 pounds and they each have a particularly forceful tail, or fluke. Lying, standing or jumping on manatees is dangerous and illegal.
“With the current herd, all of the onlookers were respectful and mainly just interested in what was going on,” Helseth Johnson said. “We really appreciate that everyone gave the manatees plenty of room.”
Tips for Safely Viewing Manatees and Mating Herds
- Watch the manatees from at least 100 feet away. Coming any closer might disrupt the animals' natural behavior or put people into harm's way, especially during mating herds. Adult manatees can weigh more than 3,000 pounds and people could be seriously injured. - When boating, follow Coast Guard-approved safe boating guidelines and use vigilance to avoid striking manatees, dolphins and sea turtles. - Stow trash and line when under way. Marine debris that accidentally blows overboard or out of a truck can become ingested by or entangled around marine life. - While boating, wear polarized sunglasses to see marine life in your path. - When encountering large marine animals, follow 10 dolphin-friendly viewing tips. Click here for a PDF: www.mote.org/dolphinfriendly. These tips were made with dolphins in mind, but they're also great guidelines for other marine mammals.
Don’t: - Try to push the mating manatees back to deeper water. Animals such as manatees or dolphins can be injured when people try to push them along the sandy shore. Given their size, manatees especially also pose a danger to people. - Feed, water or harass manatees. Federal and state laws forbid "harassing" them – harassment includes offering them food and water. - Litter. Please be careful with your trash and carry out everything you carried to the beach.
If you see a stranded or dead dolphin, whale or sea turtle within Sarasota or Manatee County waters, please call Mote's Stranding Investigations Program at 941-988-0212. If you see a stranded or dead manatee anywhere in state waters or a stranded or dead dolphin, whale or sea turtle outside of Sarasota or Manatee counties please call the FWC Wildlife Alert hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922).