Siren Song

Manatees

photo by David Schrichte // from Jacksonville Magazine, December 2014

In January 1493, while sailing near what is now the Dominican Republic, Christopher Columbus spotted what he believed to be three mermaids, writing in his journal that the creatures were not nearly as pretty as oft-depicted. More likely than not, the half-man, half-fish Columbus thought he saw were actually Trichechus manatus—or, as we know them, manatees.

Today, there are approximately 5,000 manatees throughout Florida. They belong to the scientific order Sirenia (deriving from the sirens of Greek mythology), which evolved more than 50 million years ago and includes a group of aquatic, herbivorous mammals that inhabit marine wetlands, estuaries and swamps.

Though protected under federal law, manatees still face a host of threats—most of which are man-made.

“Manatees don’t really have natural enemies,” says Patrick Rose, a biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, a nonprofit established in 1981 by singer Jimmy Buffett and then-governor Bob Graham. “Man is the real reason they’ve had so many problems.”

Manatees typically travel at a slow pace—around five miles an hour—which is one reason they have trouble coping in modern society. “Boating still remains the leading cause of mortality for manatees and the undeniable leading cause of injury,” says Rose. “Most boaters are very sympathetic of the manatees’ plight, but we do still have boaters that want to go as fast as they can—it’s the same people that want to weave in and out of traffic on the highway. I’m a boater and a fisherman, so I have a real affinity for water. It’s about promoting an appropriate balance between tourism and awareness.”

Photographer David Schrichte also advocates for the health of manatees and the environment in which they live, though he does it through his photographs. Schrichte first became interested in the docile creatures, which weigh on average 440 to 1,300 pounds and reach lengths of eight to 13 feet in length, as a kid growing up in Ohio. “My family would watch the series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau every Sunday. We saw the episode about Sewer Sam [a manatee that famously got himself lodged in a Miami sewer drain in 1969 and was subsequently rehabilitated at the Miami Seaquarium] and I was hooked.”

In 1991, while stationed in Orlando with the Navy, Schrichte visited Crystal River, where he came face-to-face with manatees for the first time. Since then, he has spent countless hours documenting them in their native habitats throughout Florida. Though he moved back to Ohio after leaving the Navy, he still visits Florida at least three times a year—making it a point to visit the springs with his underwater camera.

“Size-wise, they can be intimidating,” says Schrichte. “They look like a 10-12 foot-long torpedo with a paddle tail and whiskers. But they’re very curious. Some of them will come right up to the camera and almost touch noses with you.”

Schrichte says that his approach has always been to maintain distance. Too often, over-excited tourists and snorkelers will attempt to get too close, too fast—scaring the manatees in the process. “If you’re quiet and respectful of them, it works to the benefit of all.” Excited tourists and boaters aren’t the only things causing harm to sea cows. Many of the springs inhabited by manatees are deteriorating, causing the health of manatees to deteriorate, too.

“My experience with the springs dates back to the sixties,” says Rose. “The springs are still beautiful but there’s just no doubt that they’ve changed.” A decrease in water flow (which is partly natural and partly man-made), coupled with an increase in nitrogen levels have led to harmful algal blooms and microorganisms in springs and waterways throughout Florida. “Some springs have dried up entirely,” says Rose. “Some algal blooms are so proliferous that they shade out the light, leading to the loss of acres of sea grass [a manatee’s primary food source].” The year 2013 saw an unusually high mortality rate, with 830 documented manatee deaths in Florida (17 percent of the known population), most of which occurred amid red tide blooms. In 2010, the Florida manatee population saw a loss of upwards of 280, due to illnesses related to exposure to cold weather.

If you visit Crystal River in Kings Bay, which lies on the Gulf, and is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Jacksonville, it’s hard to imagine that the manatee population is hurting. Sightings of groups of three or more manatees are not uncommon in the area and, though the population appears to be thriving in this part of the state, so is tourism.

“It’s a double-edge sword, says Rose. “In Crystal River, especially, we are facing an issue of not enough sanctuaries.” The Save the Manatee Club has long advocated for an official “no touch” rule in Florida waterways, which Rose says would help cut back on harassment, be it intentional or not.

“If someone is floating in a spring, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a manatee to swim over and touch them, but people shouldn’t be seeking them out,” advises Rose. “Manatees stop feeding in the colder periods and they need to rest during that time.”

Though passionate about the creatures he works each day to protect, Rose is quick to point out that his organization and its mission isn’t a radical one. “This has never been about ‘manatees above all else,’” he says. “My life’s work has certainly been about the manatees but it’s been just as much about protecting the ecosystem—for the animals that live in it as well as the human population that calls it home and the 60 million people that visit us every year.”