As FL manatees try to recuperate, we humans act like wild animals

Tracy Colson monitors human-manatee encounters and reports instances of abuse. “These are pitiful, cold, tired, hungry animals, and they’re getting abused day after day," she says. Source: Tracy Colson

Last week, when the temperature dropped below 50 degrees in South Florida, the National Weather Service warned everyone in the Miami area to be on the lookout for falling iguanas. They’re cold-blooded, so when the mercury falls, they do too.

Of course, everyone guffawed about that. Oh, how wacky we are in Florida! When the weather turns cold, big lizards drop on us like icicles!

But a cold snap like that always reminds me of another animal-related phenomenon unique to Florida, one that’s considerably more serious: This is the time of year when Florida’s manatees seek out warm water so they can survive the chill.

Their gatherings attract thousands of tourists who don’t mind spending money to get a close look at the gentle sea cows — and who have repeatedly demonstrated that they don’t know the right way to act around a threatened species.

Manatees. Credit: Visit Florida.

“These are pitiful, cold, tired, hungry animals, and they’re getting abused day after day,” Florida native and manatee advocate Tracy Colson, 59, told me.

Every time temperatures fall below 68 degrees, manatees are in danger. They’re susceptible to cold stress or even death. To stay warm they crowd into springs, where the water gushing up from underground remains 72 degrees year-round. Or they huddle near a power plant, where water that’s been heated up to produce steam to drive turbines is dumped back into a waterway.

This is when we humans can easily spot a manatee, because hundreds of them are piled up like a litter of puppies, if puppies were the size of your living room couch. As a result, this is the busiest season for the Florida ecotourism companies that promise their customers an encounter with a live manatee.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Citrus County town of Crystal River, where Colson grew up and where, every winter, hundreds of manatees mass in the springs of Kings Bay.

A manatee-based economy

As far as I can tell, Crystal River is the only community in America with a manatee-based economy. Manatee signs and figures here are as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse ears at Disney World.

There’s a manatee statue in front of City Hall. There are businesses with names like Manatee Auto Sales. At the Manatee Toy Co., you can buy all kinds of manatee-related toys, and at the Manatee Gift Store you can buy “Big Mouth Manatee Neck Gaiters” that make you look like a manatee.

And there are lots of places that will take you out to swim with the manatees — probably a dozen, according to Brandie Wooten, 49, president of the Manatee Eco-Tourism Association, or META, for short. Wooten herself is a Michigander who, on a visit to Crystal River 12 years ago, “met a little baby manatee named JJ and I fell in love and I never went back to Michigan.”

The Crystal River manatee madness started with a scientist named Daniel “Woodie” Hartman, who in the late 1960s and early ’70s repeatedly dove into Kings Bay to conduct the first in-depth studies of manatees. In 1969, he wrote about his research for National Geographic, which led to him appearing in a 1972 Jacques Cousteau TV special on manatees, titled “Forgotten Mermaids.”

Cousteau’s TV documentaries always grabbed the attention of hundreds of millions of viewers around the world. The one on manatees sent tourists flocking to Crystal River to see these magnificent creatures for themselves — and thus was born the manatee tour-boat business.

Swimming with the manatees is a pretty cool experience. I did it once, years ago, because I was writing a book about them. I’m not a great swimmer and flailed around so much I scared most of them away. But one very large one hung around, apparently curious to see what odd creature was causing such a ruckus. My tour guide told me it was OK to pet it, so I did, just once.

The problem is a lot of people go beyond that — way beyond.

Colson has spent years documenting humans behaving badly around manatees. She’s reported both tourists and tour guides for chasing manatees, yanking their flippers, pushing them to the surface, surrounding them so everyone in the tour group can get a manatee-selfie. She’s even witnessed guides separating a manatee calf from its mother just for a photo op.

Snapping a photo offers a feel-good moment for the tourists — but not for the exhausted manatees, which are unable to say no or fight back.

“It’s a forced encounter,” Colson says. “We’ve created this culture of, ‘Oh, the manatees are there for our entertainment.’”

We humans have been conditioned to think this way by the nature programs we watch on TV and the performances by trained animals in roadside attractions and theme parks. People can’t just watch a wild animal being wild. They believe they have the right to be more than passive observers. They have to put themselves into the picture and make themselves the star of this nature show.

Instead, put yourself in the manatee’s place (with or without the assistance of those neck gaiters). You’ve just made a long trek through the cold to reach home. You’re tired and hungry and you need to rest. You sit down on the couch with a plate of food and then — uh-oh!

Suddenly, a bunch of strangers start trooping through your house, and every single one of them wants to pat you on the head, scratch your back and get you to pose for a photo. To get the picture they want, they’ll knock the plate from your hands, pull on your arms and even yank your kids away from you and hold their heads up to catch the light just right for an Instagram post.

And the whole time they’re exclaiming about how wonderfully gentle you are.

People think that manatees are gentle because the big lugs don’t have the equipment to bite or scratch do anything else most wild animals would do to a human who got too close.

“If they had a means of defense, I think they’d be using it,” Colson said. “They’d be defending their babies and their sleep and their homes. … I keep hoping their little blunt toenails will turn into claws at some point.”

‘Some are more fly-by-night’

Colson knows that, as a whistleblower, she is not a popular figure around her hometown. She knows people see her coming and whisper, “Oh, she’s still at it, the Crazy Manatee Lady.”

She insists she’s not trying to shut down the manatee tourism business that supports so many families in Crystal River. She just wants the tour guides and their customers to stop hassling the manatees. Merely observing them should be magical enough, she says.

She has at least one cheerleader, although he’s not a Citrus County resident.

“Tracy does provide, frankly, a really important window into what’s going on,” Patrick Rose, the Save the Manatee Club’s longtime executive director, told me this week. “When she reports her concerns, they are legitimate concerns.”

Wooten is definitely not a fan of Colson’s watchdog work, but she agrees that uneducated tourists and unprofessional guides are causing problems.

“Anyone with a driver’s license and a credit card can rent a boat and get out there in the middle” of the manatees, she said. “And there’s a lot of tour operators out there and not all of them follow the same standards. Some are more fly-by-night.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has posted warnings to visitors to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge: “No Chasing/Pursuing. No Cornering/Surrounding. No Poking/Prodding/Stabbing,” and so on. They’re designed to protect the manatees from the kind of behavior that Colson has been filming with her underwater camera, in between shifts at her job delivering flowers.

The one thing both Colson and Wooten agree on is that the wildlife service’s enforcement officers are understaffed and overwhelmed.

As the number of tourists has increased every year, the budget for officers to hand out citations for harassing the manatees has not. Add to that the fact that the feds, the state, and local government officials all have some involvement in overseeing what goes on in the local waterways, and so there are no clear jurisdiction lines.

Kings Bay “is a body of water they haven’t figure out yet how to regulate,” Wooten told me.

Despite those handicaps, Colson said, she has witnessed far fewer violations recently. She said that was due to the guides’ “fear and shame” — as in, “Fear that the industry will be shut down and shame from their dirty deeds being exposed.”

Wooten, on the other hand, says a steep drop in European tourism because of the COVID-19 crisis has meant the tour businesses are seeing only half as many customers as usual.

Another factor may be that the Save the Manatee Club has been working with Wooten’s META to get better training for the guides, so they are more inclined to follow the rules.

The club, which was founded by then-Gov. Bob Graham and singer Jimmy Buffett in 1981, has even created a program that certifies “Guardian Guides” who meet certain criteria. One major requirement: Their tours are truly passive, meaning no touching the manatees. So far, though, only two guide services have met the criteria, Rose said.

He said the club is well aware that the swim-with-the-manatee programs generate a lot of goodwill for protecting the imperiled marine mammals from being hit by boats, crushed by water control doors, and other human-caused perils. But creating sympathy for the manatees shouldn’t require people getting nose-to-snout with them if the creatures don’t want to be so closely observed.

“We encourage people, when they do come and swim with the manatees, don’t ask them ‘Did you touch a manatee?’” Rose said. “Instead, ask them, ‘Did a manatee touch you?’”