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Hot Potato, Cold Potato

February 3, 2010

I took my wife to a coal-burning power plant for our wedding anniversary. Technically cotton is the traditional 2nd anniversary theme but I’m always one to break from convention. She has groused that she has never seen a manatee in the wild. Although her kayak was once lifted out of the water by a playful sea cow rolling beneath her, she never actually saw it.

She still can’t claim to have seen a manatee in “the wild”, but the spectacle of seeing one hundred plus West Indian Manatees (Trichechus manatus) in a manmade, warm water discharge canal is something to write home about. Or blog about. Manatees are warm-blooded mammals that can experience hypothermia when water temperatures drop. The recent cold snap set records and the coastal waters surrounding Florida became intolerable for the giant, floating, baked potatoes, so many of them took to the shallow bays and manmade canals where the waters warm quicker.

At Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station, manatees have been free to come and go as they choose since the plant began operation back in 1970. The power plants have been a boon to the Florida’s state aquatic mammal and this particular site has been distinguished as a wildlife sanctuary. While these sanctuaries have provided much needed refuge from the cold for many species of wildlife, at least seventy-seven manatees have died in Florida waters from cold stress this January and biologists are still determining the cause of death for several others.

Manatee populations have held steady over the last few decades, in part due to boater awareness and increased access to warm water discharge. But nuclear power plants will be required to lower the temperature of water discharge in the coming years, which could lead to increased manatee mortality. Manatees also have low reproductive rates as well. Females gestate for 12-13 months and give birth to one calf every two to three years. Nature and humans can provide and yet be unkind.

It’s not too early to think about next year’s romantic outing. I hear the state has approved drilling off the coast. I think the third year wedding anniversary is oil isn’t it?

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