The Vanishing Manatee

Our beloved sea cows are dying off in record numbers, and we may be facing the last possible moment to save them. Scientists and environmentalists explain what’s going on—and how to stop it.

Photo by Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy
Photo by Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

Do you remember the first time you saw a manatee? You might have thought it looked like a character from a Disney movie, with its big, round beer belly and skinny pig snout that sticks up from time to time to snort in air. Sometimes it will pop up its whole wrinkled face, and you can see the catlike whiskers and upturned corners of the mouth, a smiling sea cow drifting past in the shallows.

Ask any Florida kid what their favorite animal is, and the manatee is likely at the top of the list. It’s the sea’s most cuddly creature, the unofficial mascot of our local waters. That image, the ingrained opinion we all have of the adorable manatee, just might save them. Because if something doesn’t happen soon, their remaining time in our waters may be short-lived.

Scientists and environmentalists will tell you the water quality has gotten so poor, manatees on this coast will either die out or leave our area in search of food elsewhere. In a generation, ask a Florida kid to name their favorite animal and a manatee might not even come to mind at all.

But there is, scientists say, time to change that.

Buddy Powell tracking manatees in Belize. Photo courtesy Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute
Buddy Powell tracking manatees in Belize. Photo courtesy Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute

James “Buddy” Powell was about 14 when he spotted a pretty strange sight on the Crystal River. At the time, Powell had a boat his grandmother had bought him, and he spent any moment he could on the water. One day, he noticed a guy in a Sears & Roebuck rowboat with a dinky three-horsepower engine. The guy didn’t have fishing poles or a cooler of beer, just a pair of binoculars and a bizarre name for his boat: Trichechus.

“Finally, I just got up the courage to go over and ask what he was doing,” Powell recalls.

The man was Daniel Hartman, and he was conducting the first-ever study of Florida’s population of the genus Trichechus manatus, or West Indian manatee. At the time, there were maybe 1,000 of these sea creatures left and no real effort in place to prevent them from disappearing.

Hartman was a newcomer to the area, so he recruited Powell to help him as a navigator. In the end, Hartman wrote an article for National Geographic that introduced the world to the Florida manatee, and his writing over the years helped cement its image as a kind, gentle creature worthy of protection.

Manatees at Blue Springs. Photo by Paul Nicklen
Manatees at Blue Springs. Photo by Paul Nicklen

The attention helped get the manatee on the endangered species list, a designation that likely prevented the sea cow from disappearing altogether from Florida waters. Those no-wake zones you see today? They’re a product of the work Hartman and Powell did back then. And, believe it or not, those efforts also prevented people from hunting and even eating manatees—something that was actually pretty common back then.

Powell went on to earn a doctorate in zoology at Cambridge, studied manatees from Africa to Belize, and returned home to work for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). He is now executive director of Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute and one of the world’s foremost experts on manatees.

Over the years, Powell watched as the Florida manatee went from nearly extinct to thriving, with a population estimated today to be around 8,000. But now Powell worries we might be heading back to the dire days of the 1960s. In the past couple of years,
manatee deaths have increased exponentially, and researchers fear a bleak future for the species.

If you spend any time on the water, you probably already know the reason: Inland bays and rivers have become so cloudy and murky that manatees simply cannot survive. The problem is that seagrass, one of the main food sources for manatees, can’t grow when waters get too cloudy, says Edith Widder, cofounder of the Fort Pierce–based Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA), a nonprofit with the goal of “mapping pollution, finding solutions.” The murky waters prevent sunlight from reaching the seagrass, at first stunting its growth and eventually killing it. In some spots, Widder has found as much as 10 feet of muck suffocating the seagrass, to the point where it’s like somebody threw a tarp over the seagrass beds.

Mother manatee and her calf. Photo by Paul Nicklen
Mother manatee and her calf. Photo by Paul Nicklen

Without their main food source, manatees are simply starving to death. Between January 1 and June 25 of this year, the FWC recorded 819 dead manatees across the state. That’s 10 percent of all Florida manatees, or about 1 out of every 10. By the end of 2021, we’re on track to see twice the number of manatee deaths than in a typical year.

Jack Lighton, who spent seven years as president and CEO of Loggerhead Marinelife Center and is now a senior advisor with the global ocean conservation nonprofit SeaLegacy, says there’s irrefutable data to show that manatees are in crisis. “The manatee has become, like the sea turtle, our local mascot,” Lighton says. “Now they’re dying at record levels, and people are demanding answers.”

Those death tolls may sound bleak, but it’s not too late. There are solutions, scientists say. And they start, quite literally, in our backyards.

Widder was an internationally renowned deep-sea explorer when she founded ORCA in 2005. She had spent a career studying mysteries like bioluminescence, but things had become so bad here that she decided to switch her focus to her home waters.

Back then, Widder recalls she spent a lot of time issuing stern warnings to anyone who would listen. “I was going on and on to homeowner associations and speaking to anyone who would have me, saying we’re reaching a tipping point,” she says. “I was warning about toxic algal blooms and how much worse it could get. Well, now it has gotten considerably worse.”

Part of the reason for the decrease in water quality is the yearly discharge from Lake Okeechobee, which fills local waterways with silty muck full of nutrients that feed toxic algae, Widder says. To prevent that, we’ll need drastic action by the political powers in Tallahassee or Washington.

That could prove to be a long road, but Widder says there are smaller steps we can take that can make a big difference. In fact, Widder has already taken some of those steps herself. She recently had her own waterfront property relandscaped, adding a French drainage ditch that catches runoff before it seeps into the lagoon. The work cost $10,000, but it could literally be lifesaving, both for the manatee and for us. Widder says studies have shown that toxic algal blooms can lead to increased chances of liver disease, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s  disease, and Parkinson’s in humans. “If more homeowners made sure there was no more runoff, it would make a huge difference,” Widder says.

A few years ago, perhaps it would have seemed unlikely to get the public motivated enough to make such changes. But Lighton says there has been a much-needed public outcry recently about local water quality. “People are having an awakening that if the water is so dirty that it’s killing off the manatees, what does it mean for me and my children if we’re swimming in that water?” he says. “Manatees are serving as a canary in the coal mine at this point. I’m very happy that the public has become as bothered by this problem as we are.”

Powell notes that there are examples of other communities that have faced dire water-quality issues and managed to turn things around. In Tampa Bay, for example, efforts to reduce the amount of pollution and nutrients getting dumped into the water have turned over-polluted local waterways back into a healthy estuary again.

“There may be a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Powell. “Well, I won’t say it’s a light yet but maybe a glimmer. People do recognize the problem. We just have to clean up the water, and we know it has been done in other places. Hopefully, there is  the political will to do that.”

Photo by Paul Nicklen
Photo by Paul Nicklen

Out of Sight!

FPL’s Manatee Lagoon offers a rare opportunity to see sea cows—including local star Chessie—doing their thing

It’s fair to say Chessie is the Beyoncé of manatees. He earned fame for the first time in 1994 after rescuers took him from the Chesapeake Bay just before a cold front arrived. Since then, he has ditched trackers, flown on a C-130 cargo jet, and starred in children’s books.

In February 2021, FWC officers noticed a manatee floating on its side near Manatee Lagoon, a research and education center near FPL’s power plant in Riviera Beach. The officers knew that when a manatee swims like that, it means it’s in distress. They pulled him out of the water and, using scars to identify him, figured out it was Chessie. Like too many manatees this year, Chessie was weak and sick, barely clinging to life. The officers brought him to SeaWorld for rehabilitation.

Manatees have been coming to the lagoon in Riviera Beach every winter for years to soak in the warm water that comes from FPL’s plant. In 2016, the company decided to create a facility where researchers, state regulators, and the general public could come to watch manatees in the wild. The site offers interactive exhibits and classes for kids and hosts many events throughout the year. FPL closed the facility in 2020 because of COVID, but it is slated to reopen this fall with a brand new attraction: an interactive, augmented-reality display that shows why solar power is good for wildlife.

This past May, researchers were able to return to the lagoon for a very happy occasion: They released a rehabilitated Chessie back into the waters he has known for 40 years.

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