When Florida’s manatees became threatened by extinction, animal rights activists began to protect them. Our author went snorkeling with the lovable giant
I looked for them in Egypt, Indonesia and Mozambique, but all I found were ocean sunfish, dolphins, carpet sharks and pygmy seahorses. Four-hundred dives and 15 years later, I still hadn’t spotted a single manatee. Of all the creatures swimming around beneath the sea, these primordial mammals have got to be the strangest and rarest. Manatees, also known as sea cows, are said to be deeply and soundly relaxed, and so trusting of people that they have been known to swim up and embrace you. How could I give up my search?
So here I am in Citrus County, Florida. It’s early morning and the mist hangs low between the oaks and the palm trees. A couple of tourists bob on the murky Crystal River, resting on bright, neon-colored pool noodles. I pull my wetsuit over my shoulders and slip into the cool water, peering at my brownish-green surroundings through my mask. I turn my head slightly and there it is – my very first manatee.
When Columbus and his sailors spotted their first manatees in the Caribbean in 1493, they took them for mermaids, as I read before my trip. Okay, I suppose he and his men had been at sea for a long time… The one I encountered looked more like a short-armed gray sausage. Barnacles and algae clung to its back and rounded tail fin, and the manatee mustered me cautiously with its little black-button eyes. At least that’s what it felt like. Manatees are, in fact, half blind and much better at investigating their surroundings with their vibrissae, the coarse hairs growing from their wrinkled snouts. Add a trunk and a pair of big, flapping ears and with a little bit of imagination, you can easily picture the manatee’s closest relative, the elephant. More than 60 million years ago, the early ancestors of the present-day species left dry land for the water, and they remain second to none when it comes to munching sea grass – in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, off the coast of West Africa, in the Brazilian Amazon region and right here on the Florida coast.
With a little imagination, you can easily picture the manatee’s closest relative – the elephant
As I watch my manatee hop awkwardly across the sand on its stumpy front flippers, I find myself wondering how these creatures ever avoided extinction. “They’re tough and smart,” says Bob Bonde, “and they never forget anything. They’re the lords of their realm.” Bonde, 64, has been studying Florida’s sea cows for nearly 40 years, and people call him the “manatee whisperer.” When he moved to Florida in 1978, for years most of the manatees he saw were dead ones. Despite the fact that these creatures can measure up to four meters in length and weigh a hefty 600 kilograms, they have no natural enemies apart from humans, of course. Indigenous people and European settlers hunted manatees for centuries for their meat. Slaveholders used their hide to make whips, and their bones served as an alternative to ivory. When manatee hunting was finally banned in 1907, there were only a couple of hundred left alive, and they soon faced new dangers.
Florida’s human population has doubled over the past 30 years to 20 million. Wooden bungalows line the canals in Crystal River, the town on the river of the same name, each one with its neat lawn and private dock. Many of these homes belong to snow birds, i.e., retired people who escape the northern states and Canada each fall to spend the winter where it’s warm. And many residents here regard owning a boat to be a necessary part of life in the Sunshine State. More than a million boats plow through Florida’s rivers and lakes, hundreds of propellers for each single manatee. Few of the creatures can escape them, as proven by the tiger-striped scars on many backs. What kills the manatees is being rammed full force by the hull of a boat. It breaks their ribs, which then pierce their lungs. Boat accidents are responsible for a quarter of manatee deaths.
It’s all the more surprising, then, how unafraid of people manatees are. Mine comes ever closer to investigate, even as I paddle backwards, beating a retreat. It nudges me gently and swims past beneath me. I cannot resist stretching out a hand and touching its skin, which feels like greased leather. The animal rolls over onto its back as if saying: Scratch my tummy, please! “Manatees like being touched,” explains Bonde, “just like a cat that rubs itself against your leg. Here in Crystal River, they’ve learned that they can trust us.”
Crystal River – a sleepy town in the northwestern part of the state – styles itself the “Manatee World Capital,” and not without reason. The number of sea cows in Florida is up to a good 6600 once again, and more than 1000 gather every winter in the warm waters surrounding Crystal River. Despite their thick skins, the creatures have very little body fat, so they easily get cold. As soon as the water temperature drops below 20 degrees Celsius in the Gulf of Mexico, they swim up the rivers like a procession of gray giants. The rest of the year, they go about their business on their own, wandering as far south as Cuba and north to Cape Cod. But now they are crowding around the springs of Citrus County in their hundreds. It’s a pleasant 22°C here all year round and ten kilometers away from the ocean where they grow plump on sea grass. “If I were a manatee,” says Bonde, “this is where I’d live.”
Part of the area was turned into a nature reserve in 1983. In 2012, the reserve was extended to include all of Kings Bay. Everywhere you look, you see signs sticking out of the water cautioning “Idle speed” and “No wake.” If you ignore the signs, you are issued a speeding ticket and may even lose your tour guide license. This rankles with some conservative types who consider it an infringement on their personal freedom. More than two thirds of Citrus County residents voted for Trump, and the streets are adorned with huge U.S. flags. Confederate flags flutter in front of some houses as well. The local Citrus County Chronicle still prints letters to the editor from people who are upset about the manatees. One 85-year-old wrote that the animals pose a real threat to the rivers. Others air their skepticism about manatees actually being native to Florida. You can also buy T-shirts online with the slogan “Even Jesus hates Manatees.” The people most indignant about the speed limit are fishers who want to reach their fishing grounds as fast as possible without having to watch out for “natural speed bumps.”
But the majority is in favor of protecting the manatees, in part, probably, because doing so has become quite profitable. Five years ago, National Geographic published a big story on manatees and since then, tourist figures have doubled to over 250 000 a year. It’s the only place in the entire country where you can go snorkeling with the hefty, good-natured creatures, and this has brought excellent business to what used to be a forgotten corner of the state. So, many people have decided to get in on the action: There are manatee stuffed toys in the souvenir shops and plastic manatees stand guard in front of restaurants. They adorn license plates and yes, they are also on the city’s coat of arms.
Animal rights activists are concerned that manatee tourism has gotten out of hand. “This isn’t a petting zoo,” says Stacy Dunn, “the animals don’t come here for our entertainment, they come to survive.” Along with her husband Mike, 64, the energetic 55-year-old has been giving manatee tours for the last ten years. “To change things,” she explains, “we have to go with the flow.” Diving fins are banned on their tours because they don’t want tourists chasing after the manatees. Petting is strictly prohibited as well. “You don’t want the animal to get too accustomed to people and swim too close to the boats,” explains Dunn. You know what she means when you see online videos of tourists riding manatees, cornering them and separating a calf from its mother. For this reason, some people think that swimming with the gentle giants shouldn’t be allowed, but Bob Bonde thinks their fears are exaggerated. “I don’t see that it does the manatees any harm,” says. “It gives them a little change from the never-ending routine of feeding and sleeping.”
The fact that the manatee population is on the increase appears to bear him out. “There’s plenty of sea grass and fresh water for them,” says Bonde, “and when they’re satisfied and healthy, they make babies.” In March 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency, changed their status from “endangered” to “threatened,” but animal rights activists say it’s too early. There isn’t much genetic variety in the population and this makes the manatees susceptible to disease. Plus, most of them spend the winters in the warm runoff from power stations, which creates a dangerous dependency. “When a power station is decommissioned at the end of its working life, thousands of manatees could freeze,” says Bonde. This makes the warm springs around Crystal River all the more important. In 2015, regulations were tightened in the Three Sisters Springs area. A sign in front of a rope between two buoys reads: Manatee Resting Area. If the ocean temperature drops to below 17 degrees Celsius, snorkelers are asked to leave to make room for the cold-sensitive creatures.
On a warm November day like today, most of the creatures are out in the ocean feeding. Only a few can be seen dozing behind the barrier. The water is so clear that you can still easily observe them even from several meters away. Every few minutes they rise through the water until their nostrils break the surface. They breathe in deeply before sinking again and landing somewhat ridiculously on their snouts. All of a sudden, a young animal swims under the rope onto our side. His mother immediately issues a high-pitched squeak to call him back. The calf returns, moving almost like a dolphin. With his mouth open, he attaches himself beneath her front flipper and proceeds to drink milk in a blissful state of relaxation. This side of the buoy, we humans hold our breath. Even for a diver, sometimes the most remarkable experiences take place on land.
Enjoy and protect
Swim down to the nurseries in Key Largo where endangered coral colonies are regenerating.
MEET A MANATEE
Mike and Stacy Dunn offer manatee tours for small groups of no more than six.
Observe marine biologists and learn about the sea at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium.
NATURE AT NIGHT
Sea turtles lay their eggs on Juno Beach in May and June. With luck, you can watch them.