Five high-school students from the Lycée Michel Rodange and Lycée Aline Mayrisch teamed up for the first edition of Odyssea’s internship on manatees in Crystal River, Florida. They wanted to discover, study, and raise awareness about these gentle “sea cows”. To do so they spent a week with two members of Odyssea in Crystal River, a very special area where manatees seek refuge from cold waters during the winter. This is one of the very few places in the world where one can snorkel with manatees under very strict surveillance of Park rangers. Before being allowed on a kayaking or snorkeling trip, you must watch a movie from US Fish and Wildlife which explains how visitors must behave when approaching manatees, together with the regulations and fines which await you if you do not stick to the rules. The Florida manatee is a protected species and it is Florida’s emblematic animal.
Crystal River is a network of freshwater channels and springs where manatees have come for thousands of years looking for warm water during the coldest parts of the winter. Although manatees look quite corpulent, they do not have a lot of fat under their skin, which makes them very sensitive to cold conditions. In recent years, during extremely cold winters, mass mortalities were documented among Florida manatees, and a condition cold stress syndrome was even described. During the past decades aggregations of tens to hundreds of manatees have occurred around hot freshwater runoffs from power plants.
We decided to stay at a wonderful motel right on the water’s edge, situated in front of banana island, which is a manatee sanctuary. From our terrace we could observe manatees swim by or rest in the protected area in front of banana island. One day we even had a bottlenose dolphin pass by while we were picknicking by the water. Our days started very early, as soon as 6:30am for breakfast, in order to make sure to be on the water early with our kayaks, all geared-up to paddle to the three-sisters springs where most of the manatees hang out. Being early allowed us to get to the springs before most of the tourist boats, and it sometimes also surprised us with the most beautiful sunrise you can imagine, with incredible light and mist over the flat-calm water.
It generally took us half an hour to get to the springs, and on the way we would met all types of birds, from kingfishers to herons, but also manatees on their way to/from the springs, and sometimes even dolphins. Thank God we did not come across any alligators or Florida snapping tortoises.
Once at the three-sisters springs, we would tie-up our kayaks at the designed area and snorkel into the springs, crossing manatees on our way in. These springs are a magical place, with crystal clear water, beautiful trees with hanging moss, and lots of manatees resting or doing their thing. One can clearly see water bubbling out through the clear sand at the bottom, and there was always fish around the manatees, nibbling the algae growing on their backs.
We very clearly instructed our team about the way we were to behave around manatees, and we had not come to pet the manatees. The way our group approached manatees was a very respectful one, always keeping our distance from the manatees, only interacting with them if the interaction was initiated by the manatee. Never stand in the way of a manatee, nor separate manatees. Touching a manatee would only be an option if the manatee clearly initiated contact and wanted to do so.
Our mission was to photo-identify as many manatees as possible by taking pictures of their fluke and of any particular scar or mark on their body. Unfortunately, manatees get hit by boats quite frequently, and although propeller marks look very dramatic and are present in over 50% of the manatees, it’s the blunt traumas which cause most of the mortalities. Our other duty was to document as many behaviors as possible by photographs or video. We photographed as many a 68 different flukes, and managed to witness many different behaviors, from resting to nursing. But to tell you the truth, the manatees mostly just rested, because that is what they come to do in these warm springs. This is one more reason not to disturb them.
In the morning we spent about an hour and a half with the manatees, observing them, taking pictures and sometimes interacting with them. We would then kayak back to our motel to have a nice warm shower, because even though the springs are relatively warm, it gets pretty cold after an hour and a half in the water without moving much. We would then have lunch by the water, looking at manatees from a distance, and looking for passing dolphins. After lunch we would then gear up and kayak back to the springs to see what the manatee activity is like, take more ID pictures, and observe them. We then would kayak back to shower again and prepare for our well-deserved dinner, before falling into bed completely exhausted.
On two days we modified our daily routine in order to follow the team from the University of Florida, led by Dr Bob Bonde, who is THE manatee God, and has written the reference book about Florida manatees. We actually bought the book and he signed it for every single one of us. The team is very experienced in catching manatees, and every year for the past 15 years, they organise one or two catches to monitor the health of the local manatee population. We actually had organised our trip around their dates in order to make sure to be able to witness this unique experience. The team set up on a beach on a corner of the entrance to the three sisters, where lots of manatees swim by. One part of the team would deal with the catching of the manatees, the other one would do all the handling: from weighing to drawing blood, taking biopsies, micro-chipping them, and also making sure to mark them in order not to catch the same one twice. All this went very quickly as they caught their 200th manatee during the first day, and they caught 10 in total. This very experienced team with an entire group of veterinarian also monitored the stress level of every single animal during the entire time out of the water, making sure it would be on the safe side.
Our team was allowed to stand right next to the manatees during all the handling and tests, and even participated in holding vials and carrying samples to the improvised field laboratory. There was a team from Puerto Rico which had come to gain experience for their own manatee catches back home. We had a great exchange of information, ideas and experiences between our team, the researchers, and the University students. We also made contact with local conservation organisation like the Save the Manatee.
This manatee internship turned out to be a wonderful experience for all of us, not only because we had the incredible chance to snorkel with these wonderful animals and participate in the University of Florida’s research efforts, but because we were also very lucky with the weather and the manatees themselves. They showed up at the right time, and the day we left there was a big storm which forced the authorities to close the three sisters springs for several days. After we returned to Luxembourg we were informed that because as many as 300 manatees had entered the springs they had to close them for the public for several days.
But most of all, we were very lucky because the entire team was wonderful, very motivated, cheerful and enthusiastic. We very quickly found the perfect name: the manateam! Thank you to all the participants for being brilliant people!