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Rescuers pull cold-stressed Florida manatee from popular St. Petersburg harbor

Manatees can become stressed when water temperatures dip below 68 degrees. The water in the area was measured at 63 Thursday afternoon.
Florida wildlife biologists rescue a cold-stressed manatee from Bayboro Harbor in St. Petersburg on Thursday. The young male manatee was brought to ZooTampa for rehabilitation, according to wildlife officials.
Florida wildlife biologists rescue a cold-stressed manatee from Bayboro Harbor in St. Petersburg on Thursday. The young male manatee was brought to ZooTampa for rehabilitation, according to wildlife officials. [ Courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Comission ]
Published Jan. 19|Updated Jan. 20

ST. PETERSBURG — Florida wildlife biologists rescued a young male manatee from a popular St. Petersburg harbor Thursday afternoon after the animal appeared to be stressed by colder water temperatures, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Crews began rescuing the manatee just before noon from Bayboro Harbor, a body of water that’s surrounded by several research institutions — including ones that study Florida’s manatee population, according to Carly Jones, a spokesperson for the state-run Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

The institute, which has been actively involved in responding to the ongoing manatee-die off on the state’s east coast, borders the harbor where the sea cow was rescued. The University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus and a U.S. Coast Guard facility also share the harbor.

An undergraduate marine biology student at the USF St. Petersburg campus saw the manatee, recognized signs of cold stress and reported it to wildlife officials, the school said. Once rescued, the manatee was brought to ZooTampa for rehabilitation, Jones said.

Curious bystanders watch as Florida wildlife biologists rescue a cold-stressed manatee from a St. Petersburg harbor on Thursday.
Curious bystanders watch as Florida wildlife biologists rescue a cold-stressed manatee from a St. Petersburg harbor on Thursday. [ Courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Comission ]

Sea cows can become stressed when water temperatures fall below 68 degrees. The water around Albert Whitted Airport Thursday afternoon hovered around 63 degrees, according to data by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

At least 12 manatees died of cold stress in 2022, according to data provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That’s relatively few compared to 2018, when 85 manatees succumbed to prolonged colder water temperatures.

Related: 800 Florida manatees died in 2022 as starvation lingers — but most survived red tide

More than 1,900 manatees have died since January 2021 as the species grapples with a human-caused seagrass famine in the 156-mile Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s Atlantic coast. Decades of pollution there has sparked repeated algal blooms that block the sunlight seagrass needs to thrive on the seafloor. One estimate by the St. Johns River Water Management District shows seagrass coverage has declined by 75% in the estuary between 2009 and 2021.

Cold water temperatures can further stress the already-weakened animals.