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Save the Manatee Club: Guardians of Sirenia

Sunlight beams on a manatee - photo by David Schricte
Sunlight beams on a manatee - photo by David Schricte

With their charming personalities, massive size, and unorthodox look, manatees have captured the human imagination since man set eyes on them. The Serer people of Senegal in West Africa included sea cows in their mythology, portraying them as protectors of future secrets; lovelorn sailors, if legends are to be believed, would mistake manatees for mermaids. Manatees serve as Florida’s official state marine mammal, and places like the aptly named Manatee County celebrate the gentle Sirenia throughout the year. But beyond these colorful interpretations, manatees are very real creatures, and their habitats and longevity are constantly in peril: a situation brought on by recklessness and neglect. A species of gentle, herbivorous giants hangs in the balance: through stewardship, it can be tipped in a bright direction.

By John Tapley

Safeguarding manatees and their delicate ecosystems for the present and future is Save the Manatee Club (SMC): a 501 non-profit group and membership organization headquartered in Maitland, Florida. The group strives to ensure manatee population growth or stability in protected, healthy habitats and works with communities, organizations, scientists, and legislative bodies to minimize humanity’s deleterious impact.

SMC originated in 1981 as the Save the Manatee Committee: inspired by a meeting between then Florida governor Bob Graham, his daughters, and musician and ocean steward Jimmy Buffet (who would serve as the committee’s chair). Out of the gate, the committee received support from government and private organizations and the scuba diving industry.

“In the beginning, it was a quasi-government committee that got together and included interests from Outboard Marine Corporation and representatives from the dive industry,” explains SMC Executive Director Patrick Ross, who served as the committee’s first scientific advisor. “The idea was to have a broad cross-section of people represented to get the best protections for manatees and for boating and the aquatic ecosystem.”

Since its founding, the organization has embodied a grassroots approach toward its educational and conservational mission and has formed a swath of programs and projects. Thanks to SMC and the community, manatees now enjoy over 300,000 protected bodies of water and can travel with fewer risks in designated manatee speed zones.

Public education and outreach are pivotal to SMC’s goals and the club hosts and engages in numerous events throughout the year, including the Manatee Festival, ManateeFest, Manatee Adoption Day, and many others. SMC also provides a varied host of educational opportunities such as conservation classrooms, online bibliographies and research, and materials for educators like guides, coloring and activity books, and videos.

SMC is part of the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership, which rescues, rehabilitates, releases, and monitors sick and injured manatees. The partnership includes Sea World, Miami SeaQuarium, the Cincinnati Zoo, and Sea to Shore Alliance, and government institutions such as Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park and the USGS Sirenia Project.

A sea cow captured in a snapshot - by David Schricte
A sea cow captured in a snapshot – by David Schricte

SMC’s efforts aren’t limited to Floridian waters or even the southeastern United States. The club routinely works with global organizations, scientists, and educators who protect manatees and their ecosystems in West Africa, South America, and Wider Caribbean. Following Hurricane Maria’s devastation in 2017, SMC offered support to the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center. Manatee aficionados the world over can participate in the club’s yearly Save the Manatee Virtual 5K fundraiser or watch the gentle giants live at Blue Spring State Park via a web feed.

Manatees have an appeal as big as their rotund, potato-shaped bodies. Gentle and docile, these massive marine mammals emit a presence of serene tranquility: witnessing a manatee gracefully gliding through the waters as it grazes on sea grasses and errant vegetation is a Zen-like experience. Sea cows are not always so slothful and sometimes exhibit a playful-like energy: on occasion, they have been seen vigorously stirring up the substrate in search of food.

According to Rose, manatee appeal is largely owed to their girthy size and peaceful demeanor:

“I think it’s because of how large they are: that you can be in close proximity to such a large marine mammal but not have to be worried or threatened by it. The order Sirenia (including dugongs presently, and historically, Steller’s sea cow) aren’t a species capable of aggression. The threats to their very existence are because of what man’s doing to them directly or to their environment, and that’s a big part of the endearing aspect of why people want to learn more about them.”

Juxtaposing these lighthearted tableaus are very real threats: red tide poisoning, boating, drowning, and cold stress are the leading causes of manatee mortality. Twenty-eighteen marked a grim record year. By December 21, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) recorded 804 manatee deaths: 119 of which were due to boating accidents. Preventing manatee injury or death is the keystone of SMC’s mission, and it works diligently to educate boaters on proper procedures.

“We’re extremely active in trying to engage boaters and outdoor enthusiasts with an understanding of why manatees are threatened by these actions: to watch out for them, appropriately slow down, and warn other boaters and operators what to look for,” says Rose.

One of SMC’s newer projects in preventing and lowering watercraft-related accidents is a joint-effort between it and the Manatee Eco Tourism Association (META): the Guardian Guides Manatee Stewardship Program, which, according to SMC’s website, “is to provide sustainable, world-class ecotourism opportunities for in- and on-water visitors to Crystal River and Citrus County, Florida, in order to promote stewardship of manatees, their aquatic ecosystem, and the surrounding springshed.”

Says Rose:

“We’ve been working actively in the Crystal River/King’s Bay Area where, by the sheer numbers of hundreds of thousands of people coming to see and interact with manatees, it’s become a problem in terms of inadvertent – for the most part – harassment of manatees. We’ve developed a program, the Guardian Guides, where the outfit can apply and meet agreed upon standards: trying to provide a situation where if there’s going to be any contact with manatees and divers, the manatees are doing it. It’s to the point of a passive observation where you would approach no closer than body length, and if the manatee wants to come to you, there’s no prohibitions on the manatee touching the diver.”

He continues, stressing the importance of responsible behavior:

“It’s come to the point where whether intentional or unintentional, it’s causing more problems… grabbing, riding, pursuing them with over 300,000 visitors at those areas. It doesn’t take a lot of aggressive action to separate a mother from a calf or cause an animal to leave a warm water area.

“I’ve been a very strong believer in developing an affinity between divers and manatees. The challenge is that we don’t love them too much. We create the situation where people can come away from that, having identified with manatees and how important it is to protect the quality of our aquatic systems.”

“The vast majority of manatees don’t want to be around divers: they’re there to stay warm and get away from things. But there are a significant number of manatees – especially as the Kings Bay/Crystal River are has evolved – that will seek people out. We’re trying to find that balance where it’s on the manatee’s terms: if it’s nuzzling you or chewing on your hair, it’s up to them.”

All of these efforts have been made possible through the work of scientists, nature lovers, educators, students, rangers, celebrities, legislators, and watersports enthusiasts – whole communities banding together for a common goal. As a non-profit, SMC relies on volunteers and financial support: volunteers participate in community events and educational outreach programs; funds are garnered through donations, yearly Adopt-a-Manatee memberships, and an online merchandise store.

Manatees are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (a downgrade from the previously endangered status) and are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. SMC has strongly opposed the former decision and will continue to fight for manatees and their ecosystems.

Says Rose:

“Manatees remain at very great risk despite the fact the federal government reclassified them from endangered to threatened. It’s not a situation where you can start to breathe easier in regard to their risk. We strongly disagreed with it. Out of over 80,000 comments sent in, only 72 were supportive; the government sent out peer reviews to various specialists and scientists, and they all wrote back saying it wasn’t the time. The [recent] record mortality also demonstrates this isn’t the time.

“That’s not to say we don’t have more manatees now, especially in Florida, than from the time they were listed. We’re proud of the way we’ve worked with our partners to help create a situation where the population can begin its recovery. Sadly, what will be necessary to sustain them, and for the future… those risks and threats are not controlled and are likely to get substantially worse.

“It remains quite serious, and with the increase in threats through ground tides, red tides, and other habitat-related issues, we want to encourage people to be active, engaged, and involved. It’s going to take a lot of people working together to make a lasting difference.”

For more information on Save the Manatee Club, visit www.savethemanatee.org.