By Tim O’Meilia
Manatees — those lovable, lumbering, cow-faced, half-ton marine mammals that putter along in Palm Beach County’s Intracoastal Waterway — will get extra protection from boaters this winter from six new boating speed zones in south county waters.
The zones, aimed at protecting both boaters and manatees, went into effect in March when the last of the speed limit signs were erected. But the warm-water-seeking sea cows will benefit this winter as they migrate south.
Official manatee season, from Nov. 15 until March 31, urges boaters to watch out for the cow-like snouts of outsized gray mammals or their tell-tale half-moon swirls of water.
“Manatees are basically migratory. They’re trying to escape the cold water and head south this time of year,” said biologist Scott Calleson of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The zones are in effect 300 feet north and south of six south county bridges spanning the Intracoastal Waterway: Southern Boulevard, Lake Worth Road, Woolbright Road, George Bush Boulevard, Spanish River Boulevard and Palmetto Park Road.
The signs require either no speed, minimum wake or idle speed, no wake. The rules are in effect year round.
“Palm Beach County has tried to do a good bit of public outreach to make sure people know about the new zones,” Calleson said.
So far this year, three manatees have been killed by watercraft in county waters, compared with two for all of 2010. Five have died from the effects of cold weather in 2011, compared with six in 2010.
The winter months are the most dangerous for the sea cows so the current year totals will likely increase. All told, 18 manatees died in Palm Beach County last year, 11 in 2011.
The county’s Manatee Protection Plan pays for more than 2,300 hours of extra patrolling along the coast during manatee season, but that doesn’t include the Intracoastal Waterway, which is the jurisdiction of the FWC.
During the 2010-11 manatee season, marine officers logged 2,193 hours on the water, issuing 292 citations, including 188 for manatee speed zone violations. They handed out 1,273 manatee zone warnings.
An unusual 12-day cold spell in January 2010 led to a recording-setting 788 manatee deaths statewide that year, 18 in the county. So far this year, 385 have died, 11 locally.
State and local wildlife officials are more concerned about the north Lake Worth Lagoon, where a Florida Power & Light power plant is located. Although the plant is closed, a $4.5 million heater keeps the water warm for the manatees.
Since February 2009, aerial surveys have counted 4,869 manatees in county waters, mostly concentrated near the FPL plant and largely in December and January.
In south county, 689 manatees were counted between the south end of the Lake Worth Lagoon and the Hillsboro Inlet at the Palm Beach-Broward county line.
“It’s hard to say whether there’s more or fewer manatees year-to-year because there’s much variability in the weather,” Calleson said. “There’s a lot of random chance involved.”