The synoptic surveys are winter aerial surveys that cover all of the manatees' wintering habitats in Florida.

The word "synoptic" means presenting a general view of the whole. The current manatee synoptic survey is a count of manatees over a broad area. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) uses these surveys to obtain a general count of manatees statewide. The FWC coordinates an interagency team that conducts the synoptic surveys from one to three times each year (weather permitting). The synoptic surveys are conducted in winter and cover all of the known wintering habitats of manatees in Florida. The survey is conducted to meet Florida state statute 370.12 (4), which requires an annual, impartial, scientific benchmark census of the manatee population. From 1991 through 2018, the counts have been conducted 32 times.

These statewide, interagency surveys are currently conducted during the coldest weather of the year (January through March) when manatees move to warm-water sites, such as natural springs, thermal discharges from power and industrial plants, and deep canals. The ideal conditions for the current synoptic survey are cool weather, following a prolonged period of cold weather (usually following multiple cold fronts), low winds, and bright sunshine. Weather conditions and manatee behavior during the survey have a large effect on the synoptic counts. For that reason, the counts are used as indicators of relative abundance within a year and are not suitable for assessing long-term population trends. Counts can vary depending on whether it is warm or cold, sunny or cloudy, calm or windy. Manatees are more easily counted a few days after a cold front when it is slightly warmer, clear, and windless. A warming trend with sunny, windless conditions following cold weather increases the likelihood that manatees will be resting at the water's surface, where observers can easily spot them.

Although there is no single formula for predicting the best days to conduct the current synoptic survey, FWC scientists use a list of minimum criteria to help predict the most appropriate day to conduct a survey.

Minimum Criteria for Conducting the Current Synoptic Survey

  1. Air temperatures forecast to be less than or equal to 49° F near most major manatee aggregation sites* on at least 3 of 5 days prior to the survey
  2. Water temperature below 68° F near most major manatee aggregation sites
  3. On the survey days, no winds forecasted above 15 knots in the entire survey area
  4. On survey days, no sky conditions forecasted as "mostly cloudy" or "rainy" in the entire survey area

Surveys will only be scheduled if all of these minimum requirements are met simultaneously.

There are unfavorable weather conditions that cause poor short-term water clarity:

  1. Absence of sunny and clear skies
  2. Heavy rain in previous 48 hours
  3. High winds in previous 48 hours (above 20 knots)

Forecasts that include such conditions may be sufficient to postpone a survey.

Sometimes weather conditions meet the criteria in some parts of the survey area but not in others - especially while a cold front is slowly passing through - or a cold front may fail to reach the southern part of the state - causing warm weather in some survey areas. Although conditions may be excellent for surveying in some areas, they may not be appropriate statewide, and the survey may be delayed until the weather is more appropriate in all parts of the state (from the Panhandle to the Florida Keys).


  • Weather forecasts are now widely available on TV, radio, newspapers, and the Internet, but those forecasts are usually highly variable and inconsistent for events 4-5 days in advance. Surveys are not scheduled based on the single lowest temperature forecast available or the single best forecasted weather conditions. Instead, researchers use a representative forecast that is typical of the range of forecasts available.
  • Many weather forecasts are available 4-5 days in advance, but most do not give the projected wind speeds more than 2-3 days in advance. No water temperature forecasts are available. The common forecasts do not address many of the factors needed to make the proper decision (for example, wind speed and water temperature).
  • Often cold fronts fail to drop to the south (over Florida) or will be less severe than forecasted.

Timing a synoptic survey is not an easy task, given the unpredictable nature of Florida weather and the logistics involved in organizing a survey of this magnitude on short notice. Synoptic surveys are scheduled about 5 to 7 days in advance, which gives staff members time to notify the proper authorities such as power plants, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), local sheriff and police departments, and airport towers. Because the surveys are organized many days in advance, sometimes weather conditions are not perfect on the day of the survey. However, with each season, staff members become better at predicting the best time to count manatees, and the higher counts in recent years are, in part, reflective of improved knowledge.

On Florida's east coast, counts using current synoptic methods are made at sites from Jacksonville to the Florida Keys. On the west coast, counts are made at sites from the Wakulla River to the Everglades. During the statewide manatee synoptic survey made in January 2018, 15 observers searched for manatees in 21 areas on both coasts. Observers were staff members from 10 state, federal, and county agencies, as well as research laboratories, non-governmental organizations, and universities. Observers in an aircraft located and recorded manatee sightings in the state's waters. Four ground teams counted manatees at power plants and waterways not visible from aircraft.

Improvements to the Synoptic Survey

The current synoptic survey method provides a minimum count of manatees, but it does not provide a population estimate. In addition, not all Florida waters are included in the current survey. Survey flights concentrate on areas where manatees are known to gather in large groups during cold weather, but do not cover other areas like the Florida Panhandle or deeper, colder waters like the center of Tampa Bay. Therefore, an unknown number of manatees in these areas are not counted. Biologists at the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute are improving the aerial surveys by developing a survey method which: 1.) potentially includes all possible manatee habitats in Florida; and, 2.) allows biologists to estimate the number of animals that are not seen, hence, not counted during aerial surveys. Other improvements include: 1.) having two observers per plane searching the survey area to help determine how well observers detect manatees; 2.) repeatedly flying multiple passes over the survey areas to increase the chance of spotting manatees; and, 3.) flying the surveys during times when manatees are not concentrated at winter aggregation sites, which eases the problem of trying to accurately count large numbers of manatees in a single area (e.g. power plant discharge canal).

*The manatee warm-water aggregation sites are listed in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Florida Manatee Recovery Plan: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2001 Florida Manatee Recovery Plan, (Trichechus manatus latirostris), Third Revision. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Adobe PDF Atlanta, Georgia. 144 pp. + appendices.

Synoptic aerial surveys of manatees, east and west coasts of Florida, 1991 to 2017


Date East West Total
1991 January 23-24 687 580 1,267
1991 February 17-18 828 650 1,478
1992 January 17-18 904 940 1,844
1995 January 21-22 669 787 1,456
1995 February 06-07 917 906 1,823
1996 January 09-10 1,223 1,054 2,277
1996 February 18-19 1,452 1,178 2,630
1997 January 19-20 906 1,335 2,241
1997 February 13 797 918 1,715
1998 January 29-30 1,110 908 2,018
1999 January 06 842 1,023 1,865
1999 February 23 900 1,123 2,023
1999 March 06 960 1,400 2,360
2000 January 16-17 634 1,012 1,646
2000 January 26-27 1,138 1,085 2,223
2001 January 05-06 1,559 1,741 3,300
2002 March 01 864 894 1,758
2003 January 09 1703 1140 2,843
2003 January 21-22 1813 1314 3,127
2003 January 26-28 1,705 1,311 3,016
2004 February 20 1,198 1,307 2,505
2005 January 26 1,594 1,549 3,143
2006 February 13-17 1,639 1,474 3,113
2007 January 30-February 1 1,414 1,403 2,817
2009 January 19-23 2,148 1,654 3,802
2010 January 12-15 2,780 2,297 5,077
2011 January 20 and 24 2,432 2,402 4,834
2014 January 24 and 27 2,315 2,509 4,824
2015  February 16, 20, 23 3,333 2,730 6,063
2016 February 11, 12, 13 3,292 2,958 6,250
2017 January 30-February 2 3,488 3,132 6,620
2018 January 6,7 and 8 3,731 2,400 6,131


*The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) did not conduct the annual statewide manatee synoptic survey in winter 2008, 2012 and 2013 because of warmer than average weather. 

Researchers need specific weather conditions to successfully conduct these surveys. The state developed these requirements because surveys conducted in less than favorable conditions produce low counts, as many animals may be missed. Conditions these winters never met the state's minimum requirements.

The FWC will only conduct the survey if conditions meet all of the following requirements simultaneously:

  1. Air temperatures forecast to be less than or equal to 49 degrees Fahrenheit near most major manatee aggregation sites on at least three of five days prior to the survey.
  2. Water temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit near most major manatee aggregation sites.
  3. No winds forecast above 15 knots (17 mph) in the entire survey area on survey days.
  4. No sky conditions forecast as "mostly cloudy" or "rainy" in the entire survey area on survey days.

The FWC continues to work toward improving methods to produce surveys that are more statistically accurate and less dependent on very cold weather conditions. Researchers are currently improving the analytical steps used to estimate abundance. Following successful testing, the new methodology will replace the existing synoptic survey methods.  

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