Home Environmental education Where to watch manatees without being part of the problem

Where to watch manatees without being part of the problem

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Over the past year, the serious-faced sea cows have needed defenders more than ever. About 1,100 manatees died, many of them from starvation, in 2021 — about 15% of the state’s estimated population of 6,000 to 7,000 manatees — in what’s called an “unusual mortality event” linked to a dramatic loss of the seagrasses on which they feed in the Indian River Lagoon, near the Atlantic coast of Florida. And 2022 starts alarmingly with 420 dead as of March 11. To put that into context, in all of 2020, 637 manatees died.

I set up a phone call with Rose after reading the news. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved these strange, docile, blob-like creatures, and “adopted” manatees through Save the Manatee from when I was about 10 years old: Boomer, then Paddy Doyle and, more recently, Moo Shoo. . I had always taken for granted that one day I would see manatees wintering in the warm waters of Florida. (Manatee season runs roughly from mid-November to late March.) It was with a sense of urgency that I booked a plane ticket to Tampa in early February. I was relieved when Rose assured me that despite the unprecedented loss of so many manatees, he doesn’t think extinction is on the horizon. In fact, in some parts of the state, thanks to continued efforts to improve water quality and restore food sources, record numbers of animals have been seen this season, including many healthy calves. .

The ongoing tragedy has also raised awareness of the plight of this elephant-like herbivore that has long suffered from threats from boats, development and the cold. This year, it’s no surprise to learn that many more manatee lovers are making trips to springs, shrines, and power plants (yes, read on) to see these sea cows in their element. For Rose, it’s the silver lining amid the devastation. “The manatees could use this additional exposure right now, to continue telling the best side of it all as we work to restore these East Coast habitats,” he says.

An encounter with an industrial sea cow

My first glimpse of sea cows is disconcerting. Despite viewing countless photos and videos, I can’t really make sense of their gigantic bodies with tiny fins and sad eyes. It doesn’t help that the scene seems dystopian: I’m at Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center at Apollo Beach, where a boardwalk winds over a canal and through mangrove forests, and a towering coal-fired power plant known as Big Bend burps white water vapors into the air. I learn that power plants are like spas for manatees, as they discharge water hot enough to attract heat-seeking sea cows. On this chilly February morning, they immerse themselves.

I walk along the wooden path with about 100 other people who have also arrived just as the factory opens for the day, and claim a spot near a railing. About 60 feet ahead of me are at least 50 manatees, but at first glance they might as well be logs or rocks: they’re so still and their backs barely break the surface of the water. Judging by the whispers around me, I’m not the only one stunned by the sight. “They’re like lumps,” said a woman to my left. “Like a mole,” said a man to my right. “Floating cucumbers with snouts”, I think.

But over time, a spectacle unfolds as I focus on individual sea beasts surfacing to breathe, their little faces and nostrils briefly exposed; I watch something scare a group of manatees (known as “aggregation”), and they all go crazy, rolling over, kicking, and plunging into the water. In a place where the water is shallow and clear, I melt a little when a manatee with two cubs swims by, and I see her turn around to snuggle up to one of the babies, their whiskers touching.

A dose of history and hope

I originally hadn’t planned to visit Blue Spring State Park, as it’s about 150 miles from my accommodation in the Clearwater area, but after talking to Rose, I know I have to go. This is where Save the Manatee does much of its research. It’s also the place that gives Rose the most hope when he thinks about the future of manatees, because it attracts so many in the winter – many with calves. On a cool day in late January, the park broke its record for the most manatees by counting 740 in one day, breaking a previous record of 624. Forty years ago, when the Save the Manatee team began to count, there were only 36 manatees. over an entire season.

The spring here, which is transparent with a tint of blue, is a safe haven for manatees in winter. This means it is off-limits to humans (except those in an official capacity), so the manatees can swim, sleep and play in peace in the 72 degree water, making their way to the nearby St. Johns River when they are hungry. I arrive in the early afternoon on a relatively warm day, and most of the 308 manatees that were counted earlier have migrated to the river. But I am able to spot a dozen manatees – and an alligator – as I walk along the boardwalk, which adjoins the spring for about a third of a mile.

Just before 2 p.m., I make my way through the green grass of the state park, past picnic tables and oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, to listen to a ranger speak. There, I learn some fun facts about manatees: that manatees communicate by “chirping and squealing”; that there’s a manatee named Gator, because he likes to hang out with an alligator; that manatees can’t just turn their heads, they have to turn their bodies. And that manatees have no known predators – humans are the biggest threat. “It’s not that alligator over there. It’s not that shark in the ocean,” says the woman leading the conference. “It’s us.”

Afterwards, I approach the presenter, who, it turns out, is not a ranger, but a volunteer replacing a ranger. Her name is Hildy Kingma, a recent retiree who came from Chicago two months ago to volunteer. I ask her if she’s met many people who visit after reading all the terrible manatee news, and she says she has. Some went so far as to bring food to the manatees after reading that they were starving elsewhere.

She recently encountered a head of lettuce near the road. “Someone brought in a head of lettuce thinking they were going to throw it over there, and they heard they weren’t supposed to and just threw it in the woods.” She points out that the manatees here have plenty of food — and feeding them is against the law.

One of the most famous places to see manatees is a town called Crystal River on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The patchwork of hot springs and shrines here attract up to 1,000 manatees throughout the winter, and visitors can pay to swim with them on a visit, which is a big, if controversial, draw among environmental defenders.

I opt instead to visit a place called Three Sisters Springs, which is part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. I’m one of the first to arrive when it opens at 8:30am, and to the sound of birds chirping, I walk along a boardwalk, peering into one of the park’s crystal springs and spot about 10 manatees. One swims slowly past me, rising to the surface to take a deep breath. The sound reminds me of a coffee maker spitting out its infusion.

I keep walking along the boardwalk and a US Fish and Wildlife Service interpreter/volunteer tells me I might encounter more manatees in an area called Magnolia Springs. We chat a little, and I learn that her name is Wendy Davis, and that she and her husband came here from Alabama in June to volunteer in the park. She had grown up hearing about manatees but had not had a close view until her stay here. She says she learned a lot from watching them. “Manatees are not fast. They’re just slow animals, and that tends to put you in that mood, just to slow down. Enjoy the world around you,” she says.

Past the boardwalk, I lean against a wooden railing, staring at the brown water below. Water is alive. The first manatee surfaces, making that now familiar noise as it takes a deep breath. Then another. And another. For almost a minute straight, it’s as if a synchro team of manatees were playing just for me. Bursting with awe, I’m pretty sure I’ve reached the pinnacle of manatee-watching.

Over the next few days, I visit two more manatee hotspots and even take a kayak tour, where a few gentle giants swim by the boat. But nothing comes close to this private encounter, so personal and privileged. As my journey draws to a close, I think back to what Rose said about wanting to be the manatee’s defender. With all the threats these gentle giants face, I am grateful to him and so many others working to save the manatees.

Tampa Electric Manatee Observation Center

6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach

The manatees seek the water heated by this power plant during the winter. Stroll along boardwalks and trails, visit the Environmental Education Building, and enter a gift shop filled with manatee memorabilia. Open Nov. 1 to April 15, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Trails close at 4 p.m. Free.

2100 W. French Avenue, Orange City

With clear water that stays at 72 degrees year-round, this park attracts manatees in large numbers during the winter, when the spring is closed to water activities to protect the gentle giants. Open daily, 8 a.m. to sunset; $6 per vehicle.

123 NW Hwy. 19 Crystal River

Stroll along trails and a boardwalk to see manatees swimming in these springs, which are protected from watercraft in winter. Disabled parking available; others may take a trolley or arrive on foot or by bicycle. Open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Winter admission, $20 per adult; seniors 55 and over, $17.50; military, $15; children 6 to 15, $7.50; and children 5 and under, free.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.