Photo essay: The Florida manatee

A precious state resource needs the public’s help

The Florida manatee — whiskers and all. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Imagine a cow with whiskers that lives in the sea. It seems a fanciful invention of Edward Lear, the British nonsense poet whose Owl and Pussycat sailed to a land where they were greeted by a “Piggy-wig with a ring at the end of his nose.”

“Piggy-wig” was a Lear invention. The Florida manatee is real.

Also known as a “sea cow,” its closest relative is the elephant. Once you know that, it is easy to see similarities: gray wrinkled skin covered with short hairs. And bulk. Like elephants, manatees are big animals, weighing 1,000 to 3,000 pounds. Both are voracious grazers — manatees, on seagrasses; elephants, on savannah grasses. Both include a large array of plants in their diets. Both have been characterized as “gentle giants.”

A manatee is typically 9 to 10 feet long and weighs at least 1,000 pounds, but it can be much larger. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In winter, Florida’s most lovable residents seek warmth in the waters of Crystal River, Blue Spring and other springs. But as springs dry up, warm waters around electrical power plants like the TECO facility in Apollo Beach provide a winter residence. These animals are adapters.

Here in Southwest Florida, as the water warms in spring, the manatees return to the Gulf of Mexico and rivers such as the Myakka, which feeds into the Gulf. They show up regularly at the jetty on my beach in Nokomis.

Feeding time at Homosassa Springs brings out our whiskery friends, who love carrots. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Edward Lear never met a manatee but delighted in elephants. “The enthusiastic elephant ferried himself across the water with a Kitchen Poker and a New pair of Earrings,” Lear wrote in a nonsense poem. Manatees do not need a rowboat. Excellent long-distance swimmers, in summer, they may migrate up the East Coast to neighboring states. Some years ago, “Chessie” was reported in Rhode Island.

To see one is cause for celebration. “Manatees! Manatees!” rings through Homosassa Springs Preserve State Park as children rush along the boardwalk to see them. Manatees golden in the sunlight circulate about like huge paddles in the aquamarine waters of the spring.

Lacerations seen on this manatee no doubt were caused by boat propellers. This animal survived, but many do not. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

These are rescue animals scarred by boat propellers. The carrots a park volunteer hands out brings them up close to appreciative crowds. He says the manatees are scrubbed occasionally to remove algae.

Edward Lear would have loved manatees. As young person he worked (and sketched) in a private zoo. He came to know the animals as friends and spoke out in their defense when defenders of wildlife were few.

These anhingas are part of the bird life in the beautiful surrounds of Homosassa. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Our world is more enlightened and caring. A couple of years ago, my writing buddy Barbara Dondero spotted an ailing manatee in an inlet off Sarasota Bay near her Bradenton home. She first thought two manatees were playing but then realized one was lifting the other above water as it struggled to breathe. She told me, “To see a wild creature helping another to survive was one of the most moving experiences of my life.”

She reported the incident to the local fire department. But sad to say, that animal did not make it. (The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a hotline, 888-404-3922, so people can report manatees in distress and excessive speed by boaters.)

Wood ducks are part of the scene, as well. The male decked out in colorful plumage is on the left. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

After a resurgence some years ago, manatee numbers are dwindling. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported 8,800 individuals in 2016. Almost 1,000 have died this year, many of them starving to death on the Atlantic coast in places such as Indian River Lagoon, where seagrass, their staple, is depleted.

Because springs are diminished, manatees are forced to seek warm waters in winter at manmade structures such as a TECO power plant. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

The Lagoon is a 156-mile-long estuary that runs from Titusville down to North Palm Beach. Once a hugely bio-diverse ecosystem, it is ailing due to “a confluence of variable events,” according to conservationist Shari Anker. “Eco-systems can take a certain amount of stress,” she explained to me, “but this one has a legacy of pollution.”

This is another view of manatees at the TECO facility. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Lake Okeechobee has been a major factor. Habitat loss is another. The suburbs are spreading out. And instead of percolating down into the earth, stormwater, which carries pollutants such as fertilizer and pesticides, runs into canals, which feed into the Lagoon.

Scientists with the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, ORCA, say that the loss of the seagrasses is caused by algae blocking out sunlight. Nutrients in soil and debris runoff from surrounding areas create excessive algae, which contaminates oysters and clams, which ordinarily keep the ecosystem balanced. The result is that this out-of-whack ecosystem no longer feeds manatees.

Many other creatures, including tarpon, redfish and snook; wading birds and pelicans; and dolphins are affected.

A variety of winged creatures enjoy a late summer day at Nokomis Jetty. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Caring for wildlife is a tradition in Florida. Jimmy Buffet and former Sen. Bob Graham founded the Save the Manatee Club in 1981. Since 1998, The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature in Bradenton has been rehabilitating injured animals to the wild in a natural environment. The Indian Riverkeeper’s mission is to protect and restore the Indian River Lagoon. Even the state has stepped in to initiate an emergency feeding program for the starving manatees.

Fifty years ago, Dr. R. Grant Gilmore Jr., a fish biologist who grew up in Sarasota — where he became interested in marine science — worked for the Harbor Branch Foundation. His focus was on the fishes of the Indian River Lagoon. Over the years, he has been educator, researcher and advocator extraordinaire for natural Florida. (You can meet this remarkable scientist on YouTube.)

All of us can become citizen advocates for Florida’s land and waters in large ways and small. This means:

  • Developing land with wisdom and foresight and voting into elected office those who will do so.
  • Curbing excessive use of groundwater for commercial purposes, which deplete our springs.
  • Regulating use of fertilizers and pesticides, which promote algae growth or harm the environment.
  • Identifying and repairing leaky septic systems, which pollute the environment and feed red tide.
  • Preventing the building of dams that block spring runs.
  • Slowing down boats whose propellers can maim or kill these animals.
  • Assessing our personal impact on the land.
  • Planting native to feed Florida’s wildlife.
  • Keeping those who come after us in mind.
  • Advocating, voting and joining with others to protect manatees and all creatures including ourselves.
  • Adding to this list.
A young manatee coming up for air greets swimmers in the Gulf. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

The other evening at a birthday party, I was delighted to hear the Owl and the Pussycat come up in the conversation. Edward Lear lives on. With our help, so will the manatees.

Fran Palmeri is the author of Florida Lost and Found, which is available in libraries and bookstores and on Amazon.

2 thoughts on “Photo essay: The Florida manatee”

  1. I pray that greater minds than mine, at our great Florida Universities, are working on developing and cultivating sea grasses more resistant to pollutants. These could be used to hopefully replenish food sources for these beautiful “gentle giants”

  2. What a beautiful article and a witness to real caring for sea and land creatures. The photography of Fran Palmeri is clear and beautiful and allows us a really personal attachment to our fellow mammals and our need to safeguard their environment…..the environment we share. Loss of 1,OOO Manatees this year alone is too sad and should stir us to action and deeper caring.
    Fran’s writing says it better.
    Love to all those who care and dare to do something constructive about it. Three cheers for this article Fran. Do you feed manatees? Can you get up close and personal as with Dolphins?
    Susan CARROLL London England Happy Christmas to you on the Sarasota News Leader and to you Fran

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