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One More Manatee

by John Christopher Fine, NAUI #4431

One More Manatee by John Christopher Fine, NAUI #4431
“They flipped us off and cursed at us.” The woman was distraught. An injured West Indian Manatee, one of perhaps 3,100 left in the State of Florida, was in distress near the Boynton Beach Municipal Boat Ramp. The woman and her friends who spotted the injured manatee, along with four others including at least two pups that remained with the injured mother, had been waiting almost two hours since they called every organization they could to get help for the manatee.
“We told them the manatee was injured and to slow down and go away from her.” The stress and care the woman felt was in part the result of seeing the injured manatee and her young with a large propeller gash in her back. More stress was generated by rude boaters with an uncaring attitude toward an endangered species fast disappearing from the face of the earth.
The mortality rates among West Indian Manatees, Trichenus manatus, in Florida, is appalling. In 2008 there were 337 manatee deaths, 90 killed by boats. The Florida average over the last ten years has been 333 manatees killed per year. Aerial surveys try to count manatees and while the population seems to be up from 1,268 counted in 1991, to 3,300 counted in 2001 to the current number of about 3,100, manatees cannot survive if the mortality rate continues.
These gentle giants average about 10 feet long when mature and can weigh from 800-1,200 pounds. To survive they must consume 10-15% of their body weight in aquatic plants every day. These herbivores can only drink fresh water so while they migrate into places like the Intracoastal Waterway and even out into the Atlantic Ocean, they must return to fresh water to drink. A manatee reaches sexual maturity at about five years of age and females generally calf every two to five years. This is a slow reproduction rate when compared to the mortality statistics.
While manatees are protected in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission wanted to downgrade manatee protection in Florida from endangered to threatened. Manatees are given protection under state law through Florida’s Marine Sanctuaries Act of 1978.
Protection is there but accidents are all to frequent. So is boater attitude if the expression of rage and disrespect by Sunday pleasure boaters toward the little group of concerned people trying to save the injured manatee and her pups was any indication.
“We’re still waiting,” Jim Sweat said. He and Penny Tomasino were standing at the end of their
homeowner’s community association dock watching the injured manatee struggling to swim in the Intracoastal Waterway. Their friend Holly waded into the water over barnacle encrusted rocks without shoes to signal boaters away and hopefully keep the manatee inside a sheltered bay away from the busy boat launching ramp lagoon.
Sergeant Yvonne Cacioli responded in a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s patrol boat.  Their emergency lights signaled boaters away. This gave the injured manatee a chance to swim past the entrance to the Boynton boat launching ramps and head south in the Intracoastal. Florida’s Wildlife Commission sent a responder that boarded the Sheriff’s Marine Unit vessel to examine the injured manatee. The FWC made a decision not to take further action.
“What’s that over there? It looks like a manatee but there seem to be fish biting at it,” Captain Craig Smart said earlier that morning in Lantana. He saw what appeared to be a manatee with a bubble on its back but couldn’t quite make it out. This was likely the injured manatee that earlier had found its way into the boat slip area in Lantana behind the Old Key Lime House Restaurant.
Any open wound in the ocean will be a target for predators. Fish will nibble away at proud flesh and keep pecking for food. Larger predators too will feed off a gash in an injured animal. It seemed clear that what Captain Craig Smart, of the dive vessel Starfish Enterprise, saw that morning was the same injured manatee that turned up a few miles south five hours later near the Boynton boat launching ramps.
Songwriter and singer Jimmy Buffett founded the Save the Manatee Club in 1981. Penny Tomasino and Jim Sweat called them and got a recorded message. It was Sunday afternoon, a day even the caring and conscientious volunteers of Save the Manatee Club were away from the phones.
What will happen to this hapless creature? In the wild the propeller blade cuts will infect. The animal will not be able to feed normally. It’s pups will not be nourished if they are still nursing.
If she lives her scars will bear testimony to another encounter with the most intelligent creature on Earth, so called, but then perhaps that bears scientific reevaluation. For, from the rude and aggressive behavior of boaters toward the handful of concerned people trying to save this one manatee, it is hard to consider them intelligent at all. Selfish, greedy, and mean perhaps but not intelligent.
In the scheme of things perhaps we can all learn lessons from these gentle giants. They are the last of the last, the rest of the best, only to succumb to human folly and the excitement of driving a boat at 50 miles per hour in a congested waterway.
Longtime NAUI instructor John Christopher Fine is a marine biologist and expert in marine and maritime affairs. He has authored 24 books, most about ocean and environmental issues. He is a NAUI Instructor Trainer.

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