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Manatees migrate early this year

FORT MYERS — November is a big month for manatees.

It's the time of year when they typically begin their inland migration, and it's also the state's Manatee Awareness Month.

But this November, local manatees seem to be starting their annual migration a little early.

An unseasonable cold front last week caused coastal water temperatures to drop to 70 degrees, which is about the point at which these tropical marine mammals move inland in search of warmer confines.

"Normally the manatees don't get in here until late November or even December but this year they've come early, so we're starting to get people here too," said Scott Wahl, with Calusa Blueway Outfitters, the concessionaire at Lee County's Manatee Park along State Road 80. "Sunday I was here and we had a full parking lot. The weekends are really starting to get busy."

The concessionaire is open only on weekends until Nov. 20 but will be open seven days a week through the winter tourism season, Wahl said. There were a few manatees and manatee fans at the park Tuesday.

Gary and Diane Sweeney, from Madison, Wis., came to the park to get closer to an animal they see regularly on Captiva Island, where they spend winters.

"We came here because we're curious about them," Gary said as a few manatees rolled in the warm-water canal that flows from the nearby Florida Power and Light plant. "We've seen them on Captiva and we wanted to see more of them."

More manatees will trickle into the Orange River and FPL canal between now and January, typically the coldest month of the year.

The magic mark is 68 degrees, the temperature at which manatees begin to experience digestive issues that can turn deadly.

"Manatees this time of year are searching for warmer waters to help them survive winter's cold, which they generally find in freshwater springs and the outflow of power plants," said Carol Knox, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.