Simply put, the manatee is a Florida icon. It’s an animal that is wholly unique to the Sunshine State, yet we have radically altered the marine mammal’s habitat. From the construction of seawalls and the dredging of canals, to the destruction of seagrass beds and the influx of pollutants (not mutually exclusive), the manatee has been drastically impacted. When coupled with direct human injury, such as boat strikes, it’s a wonder any manatees exist at all. Yet they persist, clinging to the last vestiges of waterway left, adapting to an ever-changing habitat and ecosystem. But their numbers dwindle, leaving the species with a “very high risk of extinction.”
One such adaptation is the use of warm-water outflows at power plants. Historically, manatees would migrate south for the winter, seeking out warmer waters in South Florida or natural springs in the state’s interior. But as Florida’s population boomed, and power plants began sprouting along the coast, these warm-water outflows began attracting manatees by the hundreds, congregating en masse as they waited out winter cold snaps. While disrupting natural migration patterns, the outflows have given manatees a place to escape the cold, which can be deadly, while getting them out of the navigation channels, reducing boat strikes, also a deadly scenario. One such power plant, Florida Power and Light’s Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center (originally built in 1945, dismantled in 2011, and rebuilt in 2014) has been a congregation center for manatees for decades. Famous for its winter herd of sea cows, curious onlookers were once able to walk the seawalls and watch the manatees seemingly bob in the warm water. But after 9/11, when power plants were closed to the public nationwide, access to observe the manatee congregation was shutdown, until now. When the plant was approved for modernization, FPL was able to reopen the space for onlookers, but this time with a catch.
“We could have kept it how it used to be,” says Sarah Marmion, manager at Manatee Lagoon. “But we went a bit bigger.” Opening on February 6, Manatee Lagoon, an FPL Eco-Discovery Center, is once again welcoming the public to come and observe one of Florida’s most beloved animal residents.
The two-story Key West-style building located at 6000 N. Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach, will be open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., giving onlookers a chance to unobtrusively observe manatees. At 16,000 square feet, the place is massive, with wrap around porches/observation decks facing the north (the warm water outflow), and east toward the Lake Worth Lagoon, and Peanut and Palm Beach islands, on both floors. Inside, the center will house an exhibition downstairs, and meeting space upstairs designed to host groups, be it for educational purposes or events.
Florida Power and Light’s Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center and Manatee Lagoon
The downstairs exhibit is broken into three parts: manatee biology and species overview; migration paths; and the Lake Worth Lagoon. “We have been working very closely with Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management team,” said Marmion. “They have helped us a lot in terms of just understanding the lagoon.”
An umbrella species, conservation efforts targeting manatees not only helps protect the endangered species (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently proposed downlisting the manatee to threatened) itself, but also the ecosystem in which they live, as well as subsequent marine species. While populations are somewhat steady, a record 829 manatees died in 2013, nearly double the historic average, which hovers around 400 (for manatee mortality statistics, click here). The fact that so many manatees die each year—many of which directly or indirectly due to human activity—is why Manatee Lagoon is such a boon for the region.
“Our goal is to be active, open, and educationally focused with the conservation message being paramount,” said Marmiom. “We are conscious of where we are; [the lagoon] is such a unique place.”
Manatees congregating at the Florida Power and Light’s Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center’s warm-water outflow canal.
While the center is a beautiful addition to the Riviera Beach waterfront, the real stars of the center are the manatees themselves. Opening in the heart of winter, depending on the temperature of the water, there should be a rather large congregation of manatees huddling in close in the power plant’s warm water outflow. Despite the manatee’s rather large size—800 to 1,200 pounds on average—they have relatively little body fat. When paired with a low metabolic rate, the manatee is rather susceptible to cold water. When exposed to water temperatures below 68 degrees for long periods of time, manatees can develop cold stress syndrome, a potentially fatal condition that resulted in 218 manatee deaths in Florida since 2011. The Riviera Beach power plant has become one of the few manmade structures that actually benefits manatees, offering a narrow canal where warm water flows from the plant’s cooling system. Manatees congregate in these outflow canals, a total of five on Florida’s east coast, with the Riviera Beach location falling between the Cape Canaveral and Port Everglades’ power plants, creating warm-water oases when cold fronts roll through the state. The annual congregation of these manatees gives researchers an opportunity to do a census of the manatee population with a combination of boots-on-the-ground counting, and aerial photography and surveying.
A manatee scratching its back while enjoying the warm-water outflow near Manatee Lagoon.
“The scar pattern on the backs of the manatees actually makes for a unique identifier for each one of the manatees,” said John Moore, Ph.D., professor of biology at Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University on the MacArthur campus in Jupiter. Through a program he initiated at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute for students working on honor thesis at FAU, more than 300 manatees have been individually identified at the Fort Pierce location, where the facility’s ship channel’s seawalls offers a warm-water congregation point—sort of like a weigh station for manatees on their travels between power plant outflows. Their data has been shared with the U.S. Geological Survey’s MIPS program (Manatee Individual Photo-identification System), which has more than 2,000 individuals recognized and logged in the database.
Counter to the lumbering sea-cow myth, the aquatic mammals travel quite extensively, with Gulf Coast residences traveling up and down the west coast, and Atlantic coast manatees sticking to the eastern seaboard—“ Apparently the Atlantic Coast manatees don’t venture over to the Gulf Coast; and vice versa. So those are two separate assemblages of individuals,” said Moore.
The MIPS database has allowed for a more detailed estimation of manatee populations, as well as offering insight into manatee migration patterns. When coupled with tagging programs, research is becoming more localized, giving researchers an even wider dataset map, resulting in a better understanding of overall ecosystem health. Manatee Lagoon will offer a glimpse into this aquatic world by giving the maritime habitat a mascot.
“We feel the more educated people are, the more aware they are going to be about how special this place is, and what we all need to do together to make sure it is healthy and protected, including, obviously, the manatees, but the lagoon as well,” said Marmion.
- For those looking for manatee updates, following along at home with Mia the Manatee. Manatee Lagoon’s social media campaign lets people follow along in Facebook and Instagram, giving people access to manatee information, updates about the center, and more.
- The Manatee Cam will give a you peek at the manatee residents cruising around the warm-water outflow at Manatee Lagoon.
- Manatee Lagoon: An FPL Eco-Discovery Center will be open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, visit visitmanateelagoon.com.