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<-- Florida's Ancient Manatees Unearthed






By Mark Renz

I recognized the swirling, circular patterns in the water instantly. In a few seconds, a walrus-shaped muzzle broke the surface and, just as quickly, disappeared again. I shut-off my three-horse-power outboard and let my canoe drift slowly in the breeze, watching the spot for another appearance of a slow-moving, gentle West Indian Manatee.

As I waited, I began to hear a faint thundering sound in the distance. Louder and louder it grew until its source came into view, a 60-foot yacht churning along at full speed, pushing six-foot waves from its massive bow in a long V pattern.. I quickly pulled the cord on my tiny motor, then putted to safety in a small oxbow in the Caloosahatchee River near Alva. From my protected vantage point, I watched as the huge vessel roared over the exact spot I had observed the manatee, oblivious to the endangered marine mammal living below.

It was a Saturday, and over the next few hours, I watched as more large yachts, speed boats pulling skiers, jet skis, fishing boats, even a Coast Guard vessel, zipped up and down the river. I didn't feel like I needed anyone to tell me why manatees are on the decline. It was obvious. We're in too big of a hurry, without regard for a creature who was here long before any of us. Any one of those boats could have killed or injured that manatee with their boat propeller or hull.

Certainly, we have come a long ways toward saving the manatee, which numbers approximately 2,000 for the coastal and inland waterways of the entire United States. Funds have been raised for public awareness, education, research and lobbying for even more protection. But we're not there yet.

Boaters are not the only problem. On average over the last decade, we have lost about 100 manatees a year. In 1996, 151 died. Scientists believe the culprit was a microscopic algae bloom known as Red Tide. It occurs naturally at certain times of the year, but no one seems to know how much of a role pollution and other human activities may play in the frequency and density of the bloom. Cold weather also affects manatees. Like us, they are mammals and if the water they're in is too cold for long periods, they can die from hypothermia.

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Help promote public awareness and education about the endangered manatee.
But the chief cause of deaths long-term is a loss of habitat. Florida continues to be one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. As human populations grow, we also see an increase in the destruction of marine grass beds from excessive herbicide use, surface pollution runoff, propeller dredging, and dredge and fill projects.

I realize this all sounds like gloom and doom for the

* Their closest living relative is the elephant.

* The gestation period is about 12 to 14 months.

* They can live in fresh or salt water.

* At 10 feet in length, the average adult can weigh 1000 pounds.

* The manatee is a vegetarian, and migrates to Florida in the winter, then back as far west as Alabama, and as far north as Virginia and the Carolinas.

* They consume 10-15% of their body weight daily.

manatee, but there are things we can do directly to increase this animal's chances for survival. Obviously, those of us who live here and make our living from eco-tourism, want to encourage people to visit and enjoy the "wilder" side of our state. But if we're not responsible stewards of the wildlife and environment, there won't be anything for future generations to enjoy. Here are a few ways in which each of us can appreciate Florida's natural beauty without impacting it greatly:

  • If you're a boater, slow down even when there are no manatee caution signs.
  • If you must speed, be alert for the swirling and boiling appearance of the water which is typical of manatees resting just below the surface.
  • If your fish hook or line gets tangled on a branch, don't leave until you have removed it. That way, there is no chance it will get ingested or entangled by a feeding manatee. Also make sure you don't leave behind such debris as plastic bags or six-pack holders. In fact, you will be doing the manatee a service by picking up after the less-responsible boater who came before you.
  • Don't pet a manatee or get too close to one. Human contact can accidentally cause a separation between a mother and her calf, prompt the animal to leave its normal habitat, or give them the idea that humans are friendly, when some people will purposefully harm them.
  • Support organizations such as Save the Manatee Club in Maitland, Florida (407/539-0990), which adopt (not literally) manatees, and help with education and research to protect them.