My Son, the Manatee

Is it ever too late to become the caring parent you thought you could be? To find out, one man went in search of his adopted manatee—only to discover the many injustices that humankind has heaped upon these hapless marine mammals. And when Junior is fat, slow, and endangered, family values are nothing more than an easy way to break your heart.

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

Well, let's hope not, but prospects do look dire for the manatee, despite the efforts of the Save the Manatee Club and a cobweb of federal and state wildlife agencies. Between the club's adoption program, the state of Florida's Save the Manatee license plates, and other fund-raising efforts, millions of dollars are spent each year on rescue efforts, research projects, and educational programs (for humans, not manatees) from Florida to the Carolinas. But it's an uphill battle, waged against such well-connected foes as Wade Hopping, lobbyist for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, who last year called for the species' delisting because the manatees, he said, had made such a great comeback. Hopping speaks for boaters who don't like the no-wake—and even no-boat—zones posted in high-density manatee habitats. Meanwhile, the number of manatees killed by watercraft jumped 24 percent in 1999. Total deaths in Florida last year were 268, a quarter of those due to boat collisions. Most manatees die on impact or bleed to death from propeller cuts, but even broken bones can kill them. Their ribs are solid and heavy, not porous like ours, and when one breaks, it's like a hardwood board snapping in two. The resulting internal injuries can prove fatal.

But in a few of these no-boat zones, the manatees are doing quite well: the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and Brutus's wintering grounds in central Florida's Blue Spring State Park among them. Back in 1970, when motorboats were still allowed at Blue Spring, only 11 manatees retreated to its warm waters, which feed the equally languorous St. Johns River, on Florida's east side. Now more than a hundred gather there each winter, enough for scientists to classify them as one of three distinct Florida populations, the others being the east coast manatees, whose range stretches from Miami up to the Carolinas, and the west coast manatees, who travel from the Keys as far west as Alabama. For the St. Johns group, the main attraction is Blue Spring itself. Fed by groundwater seeping through limestone bedrock, the spring remains a constant 72 degrees: manatee heaven.

It sounded inviting, but I was told that swimming with the manatees was a no-no. "We consider it harassment," said Nancy Sadusky, spokeswoman for the Save the Manatee Club. Sensing my disappointment, she hastily added, "We do encourage Passive Observation—you can still hang out near the spring and take Brutus's picture."