Manatees, Florida’s Gentle Giants, Deserve Your Protection

“Manateed off,” screamed the front page headline of the Tampa Bay Times.

“Feds kicking gentle giants off the endangered species list, angering fans and environmentalists.”

This is a town that’s passionate about these lovable, slow-moving “sea cows” with blunt whiskered snouts and paddle-shaped tails, and irate that their status may drop from endangered to merely threatened.

Here’s a sobering fact: You can tell Florida manatees apart by their boat propeller scars. Speed zones and no-entry zones have been set up to protect them. Cold water and “red tide intoxication” also hurt them.

Here’s a happier fact: Manatees are the state marine mammal and tourists adore them. Yes, you can swim or snorkel among them in Crystal River two hours north of Tampa, but you should always look, not touch.

You can’t see manatees in Toronto — our zoo doesn’t have a big enough aquarium — but here you can see them in the wild and in a rehab hospital at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo.

The zoo’s Manatee and Aquatic Center, home to the non-profit David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Hospital, provides critical care for injured, sick and orphaned wild manatees. It has treated more than 380 manatees since 1991 and reintroduced more than 210 to Florida waters.

We watch manatees frolic through underwater viewing windows in two exhibit pools. From a boardwalk viewing platform, we see centre staff work with manatees in three treatment pools. The zoo offers manatee sleepovers and talks in the amphitheatre.

All this love doesn’t come cheap — about $1 million (U.S.) a year. It costs $300 a day to treat a manatee patient and $30,000 a year to feed an adult manatee.

The herbivores, you see, usually dine on aquatic plants, eating 10 to 15 per cent of their body weight each day. Here that translates to romaine, endive and escarole.

I go behind-the-scenes, meet animal keeper Molly Lippincott and the manatees, and feed them some fancy romaine.

She’s tending to 15 manatees in different stages of rehabilitation.

They’re treated in three medical pools with remote-controlled floors. When they first arrive, blood is drawn and they’re observed and isolated until they’re well enough to join the others.

Today, even though the manatees can swim among three pools, they stick together.

“They love to be in the smallest place possible, and they love to sit on top of each other,” says Lippincott. “They love comfort.”

“People always say ‘What’s their purpose?’ and I always say ‘I think their purpose is just to be a beautiful animal.’”

Some manatee patients stay just two months, others up to 2 1/2 years before being reintroduced to warm Florida waters. The goal is to get them in and out as quickly as possible so they don’t develop “a captive mind.”

These oddly gorgeous creatures with mermaid tails have no natural predators. People and Mother Nature harm them with boat strikes, cold stress and red tide.

I get close enough to marvel at their thick, leathery skin, forelimb flippers and wisps of stiff, short hair.

Each manatee gets a name, like Little Red Tiding Hood, Cayo, Camless and Risotta. My favourite is Marmalade, an orphan from the Crystal River.

“When Marmalade’s ready to go, at 600 pounds, in about two years,” says Lippincott, “she will go out in the winter to a warm-water site like TECO.”

Drive about half an hour south of Tampa to Apollo Beach and you’ll find Tampa Electric’s (TECO) Manatee Viewing Center. It doesn’t advertise. People hear about it through word-of-mouth.

Hundreds of manatees swim in the clean, warm-water reservoir of the Big Bend Power Station, usually when the Tampa Bay water temperature drops below 20 C (68 F) and they risk cold stress.

“A winter spa for them is what we are,” says Jamie Woodlee, a senior environmental technician with the centre. “They’re pretty docile and will get giddy and roll around.”

Alas, the water temperature is a tad warm today so there’s only a handful of manatees. They’re on the power plant side of the canal, not our side.

“I wish I could call them over for you,” says Woodlee. “We do have a webcam and the spinner sharks are showing off today.”

The power plant has built observation platforms, boardwalks and a self-guided nature trail on the tidal walkway through the mangroves. There’s a small education building, picnic shelter, snack bar and gift shop.

Come between November and mid-April. It’s free to marvel at the manatees.

“Manatees have no natural enemy, they’re not aggressive, they sleep and eat and hang out — and yet they’ve survived all these years,” Woodlee marvels.

“I think it’s really cool that an animal this docile has survived.”