Groups educating about saving manatees

08/19/10 Sadia Ahmed
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Manatees have been living in Florida waters for thousands of years. But these gentle mammals have been placed on the endangered species list, in part because of their alarming decrease in numbers over the last 100 years.

Save the Manatee Club was founded in 1981. The club’s director of Science and Conservation, Kay Trip, says the club is a key player in manatee protection.

“Well, our organization, Save the Manatee Club, has several main focuses. We do a lot of public education and outreach to teach people about manatees and their environment. We also do a lot of advocacy work. So, we’ll lobby in Tallahassee to protect springs or other manatee habitats. We work with local government, state government, federal government, to make sure that we have protection in place, both for manatees and the water that they need to survive.”

Christopher Steel is a native Florida Artist whose focus is on the history and nature of Florida. He paints manatees while underwater.

“Some years ago, some friends helped me engineer a heavy plastic box that had a rubber glove in it, brushes velcroed to the side, it has lights, and it hooks to my scuba tank to keep the pressure stable. I would use this box to sit on the bottom and do paintings. In some cases, I could paint the manatees in a contained environment in Homosassa Springs.”

Trip from Save the Manatee Club says manatee habitats are heavily affected by humans both on land and in water.

“Manatee habitat is basically affected by us, by humans and by development. Everything that we do on land has an effect on what goes on in the waterways. So, if we’re talking about nutrient runoff or sedimentation that can block out sunlight so that it affects sea grass from growing, which is, of course, what the manatee eat. Anything that effects quality of the water, we have to worry if there’s some sort of heath effects for manatees, for swimming in that water.”

Steel says Florida boaters are one of the major causes of manatee injury and death.

“When that occurred, and I was shocked to hear that it was all the time, they’re killed all the time by boats, sometimes from being tangled and things. Growing number of boaters, who live further inside the state and can’t afford to live on the water front, and they have canals leading through, they get impatient with wanting to get out o the gulf or the bay, and they hate going at these idle speeds for hours at a time, to get out. They would like to get out to where they want to boat, as quick as they can.”

Public awareness of the manatees is the key to their conservation. Gen Heailey is with the Cultural and Civic Services Department of the City of Tarpon Springs. Heailey says the city held its first Manatee festival last January.

“A lot of the people who came that day already knew a little bit about manatees and how much they liked to watch them, in the park, but they really didn’t know that much about their history, or their biology, or how to protect them. They learned quite a bit about how dangerous propellers are, and they learned about not feeding them. I got a lot of comments and letters after the festival that were very complimentary. They said they felt like they really learned so much more than they thought they knew about manatees, and how special they are to Florida.”

Protecting the manatees and their habitats are essential to keep these unique animals from extinction. There are designated boating speed zones in certain areas.

“There are different rules depending on the county that you live in. Some of our counties are protected by manatee protection plans, so that will sort of govern where a facility can develop. It also tries to keep development away from the most sensitive areas. Those counties that have the protection plans also have speed zones, and then there are some counties without a plan, that also have speed zone. Those can be in the most sensitive areas in idle speed. A lot of our zones are actually slow speeds. We always try to encourage boaters to stay in the channel, because that’s where the deepest water is. But, for manatees, they also travel in the channels; they feel safer in the channels. So, the speed zones, they give manatees more time to move out of the way, they give boaters more time to see the manatees and to change their behavior. Speed zones are actually considered one of the best tools that we have to protect manatees, in Florida.”

Protecting Florida is important for both native Floridians and for people moving in from other states.

“When they come from an urban area, and move here, they think, "Well, what's the big concern? Everything looks like it's alive here in Florida." But actually, the nature here in Florida is in peril. The whole system is very fragile, and our drinking water is linked to everything that goes into the ground, and everything that gos into the ground ends up in the gulf."

But Trip says manatees also got smarter around the boaters.

"They have learned. We've seen, you know, areal footage, and different documentation of manatees moving out of the way of boats. They're faced with these decisions, almost constantly, during their day. The environment that they live in is just really, really complicated. Maybe they would be a little more willing to just throttle back on the speed, a little bit. Give them the time that they need to make their decisions and get out of the way."

There are many things that can be done both at public and government level to save and aid their habitats, Heailey, Steel, and Trip say.

"Activities, like these festivals, really contribute to conservation, mostly because of the children that we reach. The sooner they learn about things like conservation and protection, it almost becomes part of their life immediately, as a way of life. I think the kids who came here, on Manatee Day, learned probably more than their parents."

"Most of the people who really know about the issues with the manatees, are working for the state of Florida. Some of the people, who know best, are not able to speak out in public because that's part of their job as a scientist with the state, and not lobby or not to put forth their personal feelings about what they're doing."

"There's something that every single person, in Florida or visiting Florida, can do to protect manatees. I mean, something as simple as being careful how much water you use in your home because every drop of water that we use, is literally water that we take away form manatees and their habitat, xeriscape our lawns, so that we use less water outside. Just conserve more water in our homes. Have low-flush toilets, low-flush shower heads, things like that. So, even if you live in the middle of the state, and you don’t live anywhere near a manatee, you can do that to help manatees. Literally, from writing a letter, to turning off the faucet, to being a careful boater, there’s something that every single person can do to protect manatees.”

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New book on manatee controversy

Anyone who wants to know more about the controversy over manatee protection measures or the history of the Save the Manatee Club should check out a new book called "Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida's Most Famous Endangered Species," which the Florida Humanities Council just added to its list of Essential Florida Books. Here's more info: