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  • Writer's pictureTarryn Nichols

Manatee Paradise in a Human Paradigm

As manatees proliferate at Blue Spring State Park, locals celebrate

It’s late January in Central Florida. Thousands of large, languid aquatic mammals glide into the state’s artesian springs to find a safe haven from cold water. Groups that don’t go to the springs can find warmth near power plant outfalls on the coast. These gentle, voracious grazers are the manatees and the next few months are their season of sanctuary.


But sanctuary is a place they must share with humans.


Two manatees rooting for food in bottom sand of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A mile down the road from Blue Spring, hundreds of festival-goers celebrated their local manatees and community at the Orange City Manatee Festival. Since the weather had warmed into the 70s, the number of vehicles migrating to the festival far outnumbered the 14 creatures in the spring run. 


Though the festival is an annual fundraiser, the true focus of the event is said to attract publicity for conservation efforts and enkindle appreciation for the manatees’ emerald-green wintering grounds.


With maestro-like waves, a legion of students from a high school band conducted a stream of entering cars to their spots. Dozens of young police and firefighter cadets milled about in uniformed cliques. On stage, local cover band Caerbannog made self-deprecating asides to the audience between spoofed-up performances of “Creep” by Radiohead and “Brown-Eyed Girl.”


After making her lively rounds as a festival organizer, Christina Bertrand cruised to a stop in her golf cart and admired the bustling scene.


“Not everyone lives in an area like we do and has access to something so beautiful that’s entirely nature,” Bertrand said of the springs. “Sometimes, we take it for granted.”


Manatees Abound

 Blue Spring State Park rangers recorded an estimated 932 manatees on a late January day. The count went up to 983 later that week, according to the park’s data. This beats the previous record of 736 manatees seen on New Year’s Day morning.


The spike in numbers is a success. (In the ‘70s, the park recorded an average of 36 manatees daily.) But the biggest challenge to manatee conservation is still apathy, said Jeff Allebach. He has been the president of the Manatee Festival since 1997 and is a former Orange City council member.


“People don’t get excited about it like they should,” Allebach said. “So that makes our job harder, to say: ‘Look at this, this is Mother Nature. This is what’s going to survive. This is how we’re going to survive. This is how we’re going to clean our water.’”


The Scientific Stance on Manatee Status

Threats to manatee survival generally fall into two basic categories — natural factors and human-related factors, said Michael T. Walsh. Walsh is an associate professor of aquatic animal health at the University of Florida and director of the UF Marine Animal Rescue Program (UF MAR).


Common natural factors in manatee mortality involve cold stress syndrome. Manatees have a hard time handling temperatures below 68 degrees, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That’s why the animals seek out Florida’s springs for their year-round 72-degree comfort. When there is not much food in the run, they must go out to feed eventually — which is its own challenge.


If the manatees could eat apathy instead of seagrass, they’d likely be doing better, experts agree. For years, seagrass loss has been a persistent issue that includes the devastating impact of Category 4 Hurricane Idalia on the Crystal River ecosystem in 2023. The seagrass beds have not had time to recover yet, according to Walsh. As of now, Save the Manatee Club is working to restore seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon after a “full collapse” caused what the FWC has termed an “unusual mortality event” (UME).


Red tide is another natural, yet human-influenced cause for manatee deaths. By inhaling or ingesting the toxins from harmful algal blooms, manatees may develop health complications and die. These red tide events are becoming more common, likely due to extra nutrient-rich run-off into the water supply from septic tanks, households or industry pollution.


“There were historically periods of the year where red tide was known to occur more commonly. Now, what they feel is that it’s lasting longer and it’s worse in many cases than it used to be,” Walsh said.


In terms of human-related factors, manatees suffer from watercraft injury or entanglement in fishing lines or nets. The slow-moving creatures are often hit by motorboats in crowded waters, leading to about 22-24% of all manatee deaths still being caused by water crafts despite the protection zones, according to Walsh.


A developing threat to manatees and other marine wildlife that is currently being researched is “emerging contaminants” which refers to commonly-used chemicals that are flushed into the water system. These chemicals are found in cosmetics, over-the-counter drugs and even hand soap. Research concerning how these chemicals harm marine life often is not well-received because of its wider implications on human health and modern consumerism.


“There’s interesting perspectives we have to deal with in terms of doing what’s right for the environment, and for the animals, and for us that won’t necessarily be well-accepted,” Walsh said.


Coexisting For Conservation

Whoops and cheers rose from a dense ring of people in the middle of the festival. Lucky onlookers could catch a brief glimpse below a stranger’s arm of an Australian shepherd catapulting over her owner’s back to catch a frisbee in mid-air. The Disc-Connected K9 Frisbee Show started at the Manatee Festival 24 years ago, and its talented, rescued canines have risen in fame since then.


Volunteers from the Sorosis Club, Eagles Club and Friends of Blue Spring worked beneath tents emblazoned with their logos at the Manatee Festival. Fifth graders from Osteen Elementary school volunteered in a tent where they proudly showcased their Florida animal projects.


By hosting the Manatee Festival, Allebach aims to inspire members of the community, particularly the younger generation, to care about the natural world around them instead of being absorbed in a digital one.


“If you look at this fifth grade class, they get to learn about it, study about it –– it’s things they don’t see in video games and cartoons and eating chicken nuggets. It’s a totally different perspective,” he said. “We eat into the apathy by showing it off.”

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