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Manatees Making a Home in Mobile Bay, Alabama

We tend to think of manatees as living only in Florida and just barely hanging on there, but some exciting new research show they may be spreading to nearby Gulf states. Dr. Ruth Carmichael, senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab near Mobile, AL, just tagged Alabama’s first officicial manatee resident. You can call the half-ton female “Bama.”

The big question is whether the endangered West Indian Manatee has been here all along, unbeknownst to people, or whether they’re expanding their range. Are people seeing more manatees because they’re looking? Nobody knows..  In 2007 Carmichael started the Mobile Manatees Sighting Network, which gives people a one-stop shop to call or email anytime they see a manatee. In just the first year people reported as many sightings as they had over the previous 30 years.

Carmichael hears from two types of people who live or work near the water. One has never seen them and doesn’t believe they’re there. The other tells her, “‘yeah, my kids have been swimming with them for 30 years.'” She then tries to gently convince them not to play with the manatees. Or give them the fresh water they crave. Since the manatee’s biggest enemy is boat propellers, if you teach them that it’s fun or profitable to hang around people, they have a greater chance of getting hurt. And technically, if you change an endangered species’ behavior, it’s a federal offense. Carmichael doesn’t want to play cop, but would love it if people stayed back 100 feet. “Don’t touch them, don’t water them,” she says. “and for God’s sake, don’t feed them.”

Biologists already figured out that most of the manatees are just summering in Alabama, not moving here full-time. In 2007 they sent a clear picture of a manatee to Florida wildlife officials, who figured out from her boat scars that it was Ellie, a 30-year-old manatee who hangs around Crystal River, FL, 350 miles away and 60 miles north of Tampa. This year Carmichael managed to tag Ellie, so she’ll be able to figure out where and when she migrates.

Last winter at least three manatees tried to stay over, but the bay had an early, brutal cold snap. Two died in the cold and one survived by hanging out by the warmth of a water treatment plant. The manatees here might even be coming from Mexico, not Florida, Carmichael says. There is a handy map of where they’ve been seen around Mobile Bay and in Mississippi  if you want to help do some spotting. (Looks like the Theodore Shipping Channel near Deer River, Meaher State Park and Terry Cove near Orange Beach.)

Carmichael estimates up to 20 manatees may be spending time in the busy, industrial bay. That’s less than 1% of the U.S. population, which is thought to be about 3,000-4,000. The last time the Fish and Wildlife Service took stock of manatees in 2007, they figured the numbers were slightly up, at least in some regions. Only about 377 or 11% live in the northwest where Ellie lives, but their numbers have been growing since the 1960s; between 1986 to 2000, the population grew an estimated 4%. (The 44% of the population on the Atlantic coast grew 3.7% while the 41% in the southwest were down 1.1% just from 1995 to 2000.)

Bonus animals in the area: alligators, shorebirds and horseshoe crabs
Want to see more animals in the South?
Where are there more unusual animals like manatees?

 Photo courtesy of AngelShark 

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