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In Florida, searching for hope among manatees, despite a tragic year

A manatee swims out of a sanctuary in Three Sisters Springs, which is a part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. (Kerry Sheridan/AFP/Getty Images)

Patrick Rose vividly remembers his first underwater encounter with a manatee. It was in the late ’60s, and he was spending his college spring break in the Sunshine State. While diving in Kings Bay in the town of Crystal River, he first saw the manatee’s white scar, probably caused by a collision with a boat propeller. To him, the creature’s vulnerability was even more striking than its size or its gentle nature. “It cemented for me that I need to be a defender of these animals,” Rose says. As executive director of Save the Manatee Club, a nonprofit started by singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett and Florida Gov. Bob Graham (D) in 1981, he has dedicated his career to doing just that.

In the past year, the serious-faced sea cows have needed defenders more than ever. Around 1,100 manatees died, many of starvation, in 2021 — that’s roughly 15 percent of the state’s estimated population of 6,000 to 7,000 manatees — in what’s being called an “unusual mortality event” related to a dramatic loss of the sea grass they feed on in the Indian River Lagoon, near Florida’s Atlantic coast. And 2022 is off to an alarming start with 420 dead as of March 11. To put that in context, in all of 2020, 637 manatees died.

I set up a phone call with Rose after reading the news. I’ve loved those strange, docile, blob-like creatures for as long as I can remember, and I had “adopted” manatees through Save the Manatee starting at about age 10: Boomer, then Paddy Doyle and, most recently, Moo Shoo. I had always taken for granted that, one day, I would see the manatees as they winter in the warm waters of Florida. (Manatee season there is approximately mid-November through the end of 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 ongoing efforts to improve water quality and restore food sources, record numbers of the animals have been seen this season, including many healthy calves.

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The ongoing tragedy has also raised awareness of the plight of this herbivore, which is related to the elephant and has long suffered from the threats of boats, development and cold weather. This year, it comes as no surprise to learn that many other manatee lovers are making trips to springs, sanctuaries and power plants (yes, read on) to see these sea cows in their element. For Rose, that’s the silver lining in the midst of the devastation. “The manatees could use that extra exposure right now, to keep telling the brighter side of some of this while we work to restore those East Coast habitats,” he says.

An industrial sea cow encounter

My first glimpse of the sea cows is disconcerting. Despite viewing countless photos and videos, I can’t really make sense of their gigantic bodies with tiny flippers and sad eyes. It doesn’t help that the scene feels dystopian: I’m at Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center at Apollo Beach, where a boardwalk meanders 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. Power plants, I learn, are like spas for manatees, because they discharge water warm enough to draw the heat-seeking sea cows. On this chilly morning in February, they are soaking it up.

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

But as time passes, a show unfolds when I zero in on individual sea beasts surfacing for air, their tiny faces and nostrils briefly exposed; I watch as something spooks a cluster of manatees (known as an “aggregation”), and they all go bonkers, flipping, flapping and diving into the water. In a spot where the water is shallow and clear, I melt a little when a manatee with two calves swims by, and I see her turn to nuzzle one of the babies, their whiskers touching.

A dose of history and hope

I hadn’t originally planned to visit Blue Spring State Park, because it’s about 150 miles from my accommodations 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 draws in such high numbers in winter — many with calves. On a chilly day in late January, the park broke its record for the most manatees when it counted 740 in a day, beating a previous high of 624. Forty years ago, when the Save the Manatee team began counting, it counted only 36 manatees over the course of an entire season.

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The spring here, which is transparent with a tint of blue, is a safe haven for the manatees in the winter. That means it’s 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 get 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’m able to spot about a dozen manatees — and one alligator — as I walk up and down the boardwalk, which abuts the spring for about one-third of a mile.

Just before 2 p.m., I make my way across the green grass of the state park, past picnic tables and oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, to listen to a ranger talk. There, I learn some fun manatee trivia: that manatees communicate in “chirps and squeaks”; that there’s a manatee named Gator, because it likes to hang out with an alligator; that manatees can’t simply turn their heads, they have to turn their bodies. And that manatees have no known predators — it’s humans that are the biggest threat. “It’s not that alligator out there. It’s not that shark in the ocean,” says the woman leading the talk. “It’s us.”

Afterward, I approach the presenter, who, it turns out, isn’t a ranger, but a volunteer filling in for a ranger. Her name is Hildy Kingma, a recent retiree who traveled here from Chicago two months ago to volunteer. I ask her whether she’s met a lot of people who are visiting after reading all the terrible manatee news, and she says she has. Some have gone so far as to bring food for the manatees after reading that they’re starving elsewhere.

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

A magical manatee moment

One of the most famous places to see manatees is a city called Crystal River on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The patchwork of warm springs and sanctuaries here draws up to 1,000 manatees throughout winter, and visitors can pay to swim with them on a tour, which is a big draw, albeit a controversial one among conservationists.

I opt instead to visit a place called Three Sisters Springs, which is a part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. I’m one of the first to arrive when it opens at 8:30 a.m., and to the sound of singing birds, I walk along a boardwalk, peering into one of the park’s crystal-clear springs, and spy about 10 manatees. One slowly swims in front of me, rising to the surface to take a deep breath. The sound makes me think of a coffee pot, sputtering out its brew.

I continue walking around the boardwalk, and an interpreter/volunteer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tells me I might encounter more manatees at an area called Magnolia Springs. We chat for a bit, and I learn that her name is Wendy Davis, and she and her husband traveled here from Alabama in June to volunteer in the park. She had grown up hearing about manatees but hadn’t gotten an up-close view until her stay here. She says she has learned a lot from watching them. “Manatees aren’t fast. They’re just slow-moving animals, and it 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, gazing down at the brown water below. The water is alive. First one manatee surfaces, making that now-familiar burble as it takes a deep breath. Then another. And another. For nearly a minute straight, it’s like a synchronized manatee swimming team is performing just for me. Bursting with awe, I’m fairly certain I’ve hit peak manatee viewing.

Over the next few days, I visit two more manatee hot spots, and I even go on a kayaking tour, where a few of the gentle giants swim near the boat. But nothing comes close to that private encounter, which felt so personal and privileged. As my trip comes to an end, I think back to what Rose said about wanting to be the defender of the manatee. With all of the threats these gentle giants face, I’m grateful for him, and for so many others who are working to save the manatees.

Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Her website is thekatesilver.com. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.

If You Go

What to do

Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center

6990 Dickman Rd., Apollo Beach

813-228-4289

tampaelectric.com/company/mvc

Manatees seek out the water warmed by this power plant during winter. Walk along boardwalks and trails, visit the environmental education building and pop into a gift shop loaded with manatee souvenirs. Open Nov. 1 to April 15, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Trails close at 4 p.m. Free.

Blue Spring State Park

2100 W. French Ave., Orange City

386-775-3663

bit.ly/blue-spring-state-park

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

Three Sisters Springs

123 NW Hwy. 19, Crystal River

352-586-1170

threesistersspringsvisitor.org/sisters

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


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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