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The Role of Manatees in Floridas Ecosystem

Dr John Reynolds (manager of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Manatee Research Program and chairman of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission) and Kessenich are conducting surveys of manatees in the summer and fall when coastal boat traffic is heaviest and most dangerous. They are continuing the Earthwatch-supported project started here nine years ago, investigating how and why manatees use different coastal habitats and how loyal they are to favourite haunts.

Aboard a seven-meter outboard boat with an observation platform, you’ll learn to scan coastal waters for manatees, a note identifying scars from propellers (virtually all adult animals have some), and record location and environmental factors as staff members snapshots of the manatees’ backs. You may also follow a manatee for a day to find out where it goes and how it avoids boats. At days end, back at the lab, you’ll log photos and try matching them with the more than 200 manatees identified so far.

Clipboard and pencil in hand, you spin around on the observation platform of the seven-meter outboard to where 4:00 would be if the bow were noon. In a light breeze, you scan the dainty ripples on the surface of the water for fist-sized muzzles. They’ve vanished, leaving circles of smooth water in their wake. Pansy Bayou, with its elegant homes at either end, is tranquil this morning as the Florida sun warms to hot. A few minutes later the snouts resurface, eight meters to starboard, a female manatee and her tiny calf–it cant be more than a few days old. In the two-meter, murky water you can just make out their shapes, hanging almost perpendicular in suspended animation. Obligingly the female swims lazily toward the boat shadowed by her infant. She’s a good three meters long with small eyes more frontal than you expected.

She looks entirely benign, which she is. She also looks entirely vulnerable, which, unfortunately, she also is. Manatees, one of a small group of animals called sirenians, are coastal animals, feeding on sea plants in quiet areas like Pansy Bayou. They are slow-swimming mammals, relying on their bulk for protection rather than speed or power.