In a time of habitat loss and global warming, it’s nice to celebrate the wins of conservation and preservation efforts. Yes, there is a difference between the two. So in honor of progress, we honor the Manatee here at Puzzled Pilgrim! Due to public advocation, Florida legislation, and profitable tourist efforts, the restoration of manatee populations throughout Florida has seen significant jumps. With a healthy manatee population growing steadily back to numbers in the past, it may be time for Manatees to move from the “Endangered” list and onto the “threatened” list.
There are drawbacks to reclassifying the Manatees and their “Endangered” status, which they’ve currently been under since 1967. Their status was originally pushed due to housing and waterfront developments, not their population numbers. Currently there are boat speed limitations, marked sanctuary habitats, and water quality policies that contribute to the well being of manatees. It is not uncommon to find the scarred flesh of a manatee that looks as if it got into a fight with Wolverine. The hack n’ slash marks are a marker for a run in with a motor boat which often rips into the backside of manatees. By decreasing and properly enforcing boating speeds, the population of Florida has managed to circumvent continued deaths and damage to these water dwelling mammals. It’s akin to ramming a deer with your car… but in the water.
For now, the lowered speeds allow time for these large floating mammals to either move, be spotted and avoided by boaters, or in the very least minimize the damage caused by boat propellers. Some are hoping that with the manatees declassified from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’ then we can return to high speed boating zones. I think this is a pretty bad choice. With an increased manatee population, it means there is an increased risk of running into these creatures and causing damage. Letting boats charge swiftly through the water doesn’t mean we’ve magically enabled or taught this other species how to avoid getting hurt. Rather, we’ve compromised our behavior in order to share the waters and co-habitate, and this compromise has worked!
Manatees are completely adorable. I had the pleasure of being introduced to them as my school mascot. As a child I moved through a total of 3 different elementary schools in three different states. I had been an eagle, then a panther, and last a manatee. But unlike the first two, I had no idea what the sea cow was all about. Nobody spots them in the forests of North America and their coverage on National Geographic is spotty at best. Orlando is inland with no springs or inlets that manatees generally hibernate in so I never really saw one. I felt excited and detached from this animal, and continued this state of detachment as I moved on to become a “Stallion” in middle school and a “Bear” in high school. Really we should have been a Gator, Armadillo, or a Boar. These were animals I could relate and identify as I saw them frequently scrounging about my neighborhood. Sure, there are wild horses a hundred miles north of Orlando in Paynes Prairie State Park, and bears can be abundant in the sunshine state. Just not in my area. My best bet is all the other animals had already been claimed, and my schools were merely scrapping the bottom of the mascot barrel. Florida was exploding with new neighborhoods and schools began reaching capacity in a matter of years after opening.
To be fair, my brother and mother attended the same high school where the Ram is their mascot. I don’t believe one of those exists in the entire state of which they now reside. But it is a damn cool mascot since I am categorized from Sun, Mercury, Venus, to Moon, all under the Aries rule.
Protecting manatees was a big issue covered in newspapers and made rounds every few years into classroom discussions. They are considered a vital and unique figure to Floridian heritage. Despite the hullabaloo made about them, it took me until I was 19 years old to actually see one. I’d gone with a set of female friends all lined up in our bathing suits as we filed out the car for a selfie and some sunscreen. As we glistened along the streams and banks we would occasionally climb out of the water to walk along the boardwalk that followed the stream. I heard some gasps and excitement as a group of people crowded and careened over the railings of the walkway, and I went to see what the commotion was. It was then in the light of an early summer day that I saw the wide, smooth outline just below the surface. They were so much larger than I thought they would be! A lone manatee sailed beneath the waters. I watched and a sigh ran through me after the excitement passed.
However a lone manatee sighting isn’t where our tale ends. In the summer of 2014 my would be husband and the other half of the Puzzled Pilgrim gang came to meet me in Orlando while I finished up my internship. He had one request for his visit: he wanted to swim with manatees and dolphins. I promised him we could accomplish this but rather unfortunately let him down. In a way it was a lucky strike. Manatees congregate in Florida’s bay in greater numbers during North America’s winter months: December-February. This is due to the stable temperatures of the springs, which are warmer than the sea. It just so happened that we were going to come back to Orlando for a wedding in February! After two weddings (one Vietnamese based and another complete Catholic Mass for the same couple) in one day, we woke up early to drive out west and swim with some manatees. The dolphins will have to wait for another time. After an odd state mandated educational video that warned us not to poke manatees with sticks… which featured footage of someone poking a manatee with a stick, we were ready to go. Armed with Rio’s beautiful GoPro, we took to the waters. Immediately a large female manatee approached our group and began brushing past our hands in search of tummy rubs. Our guide told us we were so lucky to have encountered such a playful manatee, and soon found a delightful horde of these beauties sleeping and playing in the water. Here is a video we made of our adventures.
We booked our tour with Crystal River Watersports who took us into King’s Bay. The waters can be pretty cold with prolonged exposure so keep your muscles moving! The guide will help point out where the manatees are as well as provide footage of your journey which they make available for purchase. The guides and workers there also seem pretty happy being able to make a living with this kind of work.