By Fred Garth
We humans have a knack for killing off wild animals. Case in point: In 1741, somewhere in the Bering Sea, whale hunters discovered the Steller sea cow, a cousin of the manatee. Just 27 years later, it was gone, hunted into extinction for their meat and skins.
Fortunately, we’re also adept at saving really cute critters, like manatees. For a while manatees were on the same path as sea cows. But, these days, thanks to state agencies, Save the Manatee groups and other compassionate peeps, the manatee population has exploded (not literally). An aerial survey in the 1990s estimated less than 2,000 manatees. Now experts believe there are more than 6,000.
So, it makes sense that the US Fish & Wildlife recently downgraded manatees from endangered to threatened. They’re still on the endangered species list but the new classification shows that we homosapiens occasionally get things right. The manatee success is a result of intensive intervention by humans. Not only have we set up extensive management rules but the manatee tourism companies are some of the most dedicated guardians of the bulbous mammal. The list of No-Can-Do’s to manatees would be comical if the U.S. Fish & Wildlife weren’t so serious about it. We’re prohibited from – and I’m using their exact wording here – ”chasing, feeding, poking, prodding, stabbing, riding, holding, cornering, surrounding, pursuing, disturbing, pinching, standing-on and watering manatees”. The USFW doesn’t list shooting with arrows, shaving with a dull razor, eye-poking or verbally abusing, but we can assume those things are prohibited as well.
“The new designation isn’t going to change the way we interact with the manatees,” said Capt. John Spann, who operates a fleet of pontoon boats from the Plantation resort in Crystal River. “The only effect is going to be less grant money to study them. They’re still protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and still on the Endangered Species list.”
To find out more, I recently visited Crystal River, Florida in Citrus County, which is the only place in the world where you’re legally allowed to swim with manatees. Even though I’ve mingled with these manatees on several occasions over the years, it’s always an awesome experience because they’re not spooked by people and they let us hang out in their crib. Most of the time they’re sleeping or just creeping along at a turtle’s pace. That makes the viewing experience – whether you’re snorkeling or watching from a boat – very personal and satisfying. And satisfied customers means good business.
“From a business point of view,” Spann said, “having them stay on the endangered list is better because people want to see endangered animals. But, it’s such a cool, enjoyable experience that I think people will always come to swim with them.”
If they’re annoyed by the mass human invasion, they don’t show it. In fact, manatees seem to enjoy us. If you’re calm and floating silently, they’ll size you up with their pudgy little eyes, then lumber toward you and roll over for a belly scratch. While reaching out to touch them when they’re sleeping is on the no-no list, it’s altogether different if they swim over and love on you. Scratching and rubbing the cuddly critters when they approach on their own is allowed. Most experts advise against touching wild animals but, in this case, a human hand seems welcomed. On this trip, my wife and college-aged daughter tagged along. We stayed at the Plantation Resort, which is not more than a five minute boat ride from some of the most popular gathering spots. The February morning was chilly – about 55 degrees – and my daughter worried about getting the shivers. Fortunately, the water was warmer than the air and within a few minutes we were acclimated. The wetsuits helped us stay comfortable but 45 minutes, the hot chocolate they had on the boat beaconed. Plus, we bee-lined it to the Plantation’s hot tub after we docked for a full body soak.
For me, the bottom line was a great family bonding experience and some awesome GoPro footage of one manatee hugging my daughter. She was smiling and that’s always a good thing.
Later that day, we rented kayaks and paddled to another manatee habitat where the water was crystal clear and about 60 manatees were sleeping in a roped-off area. The sky was crystal blue, the sun warmed our skin and I had a silly grin on my face because I’d been able to mix it up with the manatees and make my little family happy at the same time. I’d call that a win win.