Sick manatee in Brevard County appear to have survived Christmas freeze

Cold snaps and plunging water temperatures usually mean a death sentence for manatees, but despite harsh conditions and widespread hunger, manatees in the Indus River survived the Christmas freeze with no increase in fatalities, authorities said.

“After last weekend’s low temperatures, we are pleased to report that we have not recorded any carcasses or manatees in distress,” said Michelle Mitchell, a state biologist based at Florida Power & Light’s facility along the Indian River in Brevard. Alpassavitz said the county was the epicenter of the unprecedented manatee extinction crisis.

“But of course we’ll continue to monitor the area because it’s still possible that some of these animals won’t be able to reach them,” Pasawicz said.

On December 23, Titusville had a low of 58 degrees before the cold snap. It dropped to 31C the next day, with a low of 29C on Christmas Day and a low of 29C on Monday before climbing to 38C on Tuesday.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, manatees cannot tolerate prolonged exposure to water temperatures below 68 degrees.

The Christmas cold front was “quite tough,” said committee biologist Ron Mezich, who oversees manatee feeding at the FPL facility.

The lowest recorded water temperature observed Tuesday morning on the Max Brewer Bridge, north of Titusville and the FPL plant, was 51 degrees.

“We think this will be the nadir of the cold front,” Mezic said on Wednesday. “Yesterday afternoon, it was up to 53 degrees — still cold.” He expects water temperatures to climb to 60 degrees over the next few days.

By Christmas, FPL plant workers observed as many as 29 manatees, which were fed 200,000 pounds of lettuce last winter, Mezich said.

Manatee deaths have spiked in Brevard County’s Indian River over the past two winters as water temperatures have dropped. Overall, state experts blame a deadly combination of cold and manatees exhausted and in poor condition from starvation.

Seagrass, the animal’s staple food, has been drastically reduced in the Brevard section of the Indus River due to water pollution and harmful convulsions in environmental conditions.

Until last winter, the FPL feeding site was filled with manatees at times.

“The 20 to 30 numbers we’re seeing this year are small compared to last year’s average,” Pasawicz said. “Our numbers ranged from 150 for most of last year to around 800 at our peak.”

The National Wildlife Service recently noted that manatees appear to be doing better this winter than they did last winter, showing fewer signs of emaciation, malaise and movement disorders. They caution that their observations come from relatively few animals.

In part, authorities attribute the improved manatee condition to increased seagrass availability in portions of the Indian River Mosquito Lagoon north of TItusiville and adjacent to the Canaveral National Seashore.

“It’s still a small number, but it’s good news for us,” Pasawicz said. “We want to see them become independent and find food sources elsewhere.”

kspear@orlandosentinel.com