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  • Writer's pictureDes Lewis

Ariel the manatee makes a home in Florida’s Homosassa Springs

Considered an ambassador for her species, Ariel shows the public how the gregarious Florida manatees could thrive in coastal waters – with protections in place for their survival.

Video courtesy of the Save the Manatee Club.

Deep in the heart of Homosassa Springs in southern citrus county Florida, a small group of manatees permanently reside. Among them is Ariel, a “great ambassador for manatees,” as described by Save the Manatee Club representatives.

Weighing in at around 2,300 pounds, Ariel glides through the spring water grazing on seagrass and collecting algae on her back, the green accessory nearly covering the distinct scar pattern trailing down her left side.

Ariel has called this spring her home since she was only two weeks old after her mother, Amanda was left badly injured by a boating accident. Although Ariel was not injured, she was not old enough to be separated from her mother.

Amanda was never able to be released, meaning Ariel had to be raised in the confinement of Florida rehabilitation centers, a unique experience for the usually migratory animals.

Ariel’s story also matters to the ecosystems that manatees occupy. Considering manatees are a keystone species, their disappearance from ecosystems indicates unhealthy changes in that natural space, which will also have long-term effects on humans.

Ariel at her home in Homosassa Springs, FL. Photo courtesy of the Save the Manatee Club.

Manatees have needed to be supplementally fed for two winters in 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 due to diminishing sea grass numbers. Sea grass populations were stabilized enough in 2024 to not require additional feeding, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Human impacts such as dredging, coastal development, and boating activities have injured seagrass populations, which has had widespread ecological impacts.

Only 4% of adult manatees do not have scars related to watercraft-related vessels, according to the FWC. In addition to boating incidents, manatees also are starving in Florida’s coastal waters.

About 800 manatees died in 2022 following a record-breaking 1,100 deaths in 2021, according to the Tampa Bay Times and FWC data. The FWC estimates between 8,300 to 11,700 manatees live in Florida’s waters.

“FWC is investigating a high level of manatee mortalities and responding to manatee rescues along the central and south Atlantic coast of Florida,” the agency says in a statement online.

Making the manatee homestead a home

Making a home in the springs to serve as an unofficial ambassador for her species, Ariel’s story serves as a warning and reassurance about manatee populations.

Ariel’s mother Amanda passed away in 2011. Ariel’s little sister, Betsy, is also a permanent resident of Homosassa Springs and the two are always together.

“Ariel is very welcoming and very curious about the other manatees. She shows the new manatees around the spring, you know, takes them out there, shows them where the food is, and all that,” Cora Berchem of the Save the Manatee Club said.

This is another way Ariel is special, considering manatees are only “semi-social” creatures.

“They hang out in loose groups, but they don't really have a family unit or pod, or herd,” Berchem said.

Photo courtesy of the Save the Manatee Club.

Manatees may travel in cow and calf pairs or in small mating herds but not in large groups similar to other land-based mammals such as horses. They will reach maturity in three-to-five years for females or five-to-seven years for males. They may live more than 65 years in captivity.

“It’s probably formed her personality a little bit,” Berchem said of Ariel growing up in the springs. “She doesn’t know any of the threats that the wild manatees are facing. She wouldn’t know how to get away from a motorboat.”

Ariel is not only welcoming and curious about her fellow manatees. She is known to poke her head out of the water to view the human visitors of the springs as well.

Though visitors enjoy Ariel’s curiosity, this is one of the contributing factors to Ariel’s inability to be released into the wild. Despite the efforts of her caretakers, Ariel is far too familiar with humans, which puts her at risk in the wild.

“You know, we do want to try to help them stay away from people, as cute as it is. Most of their threats are human-based, especially collisions with boats. So, you want to make sure that they are not too prone to humans,” Berchem said.

Ariel’s story is just one example of the trickle-down effect human activities have on manatees.

“That’s why I call her a really great ambassador for the whole species because she’s always come out, visible to the public,” Berchem said. “Because (the springs are) more like a natural environment where people can really see, you know, what manatees look like when they’re out in the wild.”

To report a sick or injured manatee, please call the Wildlife Alert Hotline, 1-888-404-3922.


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