West Indian Manatees

Photo by Doug Perrine

When I was in my early teens, (pre-Disney World) growing up in Winter Park, FL (which was sort of surrounded by Orlando--even then) my mother would force my sister and me to ride with her every Sunday to visit my grandmother, who had advanced dementia. She was in a home in Orange City, which is north of Orlando and Sanford, but south of Deland. (The building that housed the nursing home is still there.) This was before Interstate 4, so the drive, which seemed interminable, took nearly two hours--each way. Our reward for behaving was to stop at Morrison's cafeteria on the way home, where I would make a meal out of cooked carrots, string beans, and mashed potatoes with a pool of gravy in the center.

If we'd only known. Right there in the heart of Orange City, is the turn off to Blue Spring, the home of the largest congregation of manatees, anywhere.

Manatees are a migratory species. In the summer months, they can be found as far west as Texas, but summer sightings in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are more common. In the winter, they are concentrated in Florida, where they disperse in search of food during the mild days. However, cold weather can kill a manatee, so when the temperature drops, manatees by the hundreds seek refuge in the warm, crystal clear springs of central Florida. The water that feeds these springs bubbles up from underground caverns, and is a constant 74 degrees. Visiting Blue Spring on a cold winter day is an amazing experience.

Meanwhile, I lived in Florida all my life and had never heard of a manatee until the water hyacinth population got out of control in the canals in south Florida. One suggested solution was to put the mostly herbivorous manatees in the canals to eat the hyacinth. I'm rather sure this didn't work, since they are grazers on algae and sea grass.

In 1984, I did my senior paper in Biology at University of Miami on the territoriality of Great White herons in the Keys. (A story for another time.) The number one killer of the slow moving manatee are boat propellers. Most of the manatees in Blue Spring can be individually identified by their propeller scars. My Great White heron study was conducted along the canals of a housing development in Tavenier in the Florida Keys. Every afternoon, a lone manatee would travel up the main canal to a fueling dock. You knew she was coming by the warning shouts of "manatee in the canal" shouted from neighbor to neighbor, and at any passing boat. When news of her arrival reached the fueling docks, someone would put the garden hose over the side of the sea wall, turn on the freshwater, and toss a chopped-up head of lettuce into the water for her.

Note the propeller scars on the mother manatee's back.

Twice I got to lie on my stomach on the sea wall, feed lettuce leaves to her and tickle her belly. Once--because someone told me it would be an interesting experience--I put my hand in her mouth. I've tried to describe the feeling, and I think it most closely resembled being munched on by a thick bristled, very malleable back scrubber. It indeed felt strange, and didn't hurt, so been there, done that.