Within the congregation, I count more than 20 sedentary animals. Plump bodies of gray mass clustered together, limbs touching perhaps for the sake of warmth. Only gentle gestures among the idle creatures suggest a common interest: conserve energy.
At the Three Sister's Springs near Crystal River in Citrus County, Florida, water temperatures remains a consistent 72F (22C). Here the Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, finds a well know wintering haven in the tepid waters of the natural spring. Fiction will tell us in Homer's Odyssey, Sirens were half-woman, half-bird creatures, later to be confused as mermaids by other authors. As nomenclature stuck in books, science named the Order Sirenia after the tale that suggested manatees where once living mermaids. The 3 extant species of manatee and their close relative, the dugong, now belong in this grouping. At Crystal River in the cold season, the tourists are there by the dozens on any given day. At an arm's reach away, omnipresent humans encounter one of nature's most placid species. Some of the inquisitive animals do not mind. Some of the overzealous tourists get too close. Man and manatee co-exist here and the tale has the promise of success, pending sound conservation decisions and a decrease in the threats that continue to reduce manatee numbers around the state of Florida.
The manatee's nearsightedness, defenceless slow moving body, and habit of grazing in shallow waters make sit vulnerable to the threat of being struck by boats or slashed with propellers. This remains to be the main cause of manatee mortality in the United States. It still happens in Crystal River though buoys educate passersby that the animals are near. Of the 20 or so animals I encounter, almost all have scars of varying length. Some exhibit the permanent wounds of over 40 strikes. Like these manatees, others may live through harmful encounters, but many suffer injuries too fatal for survival. If the females of reproductive age are hit, the population dynamics are consequentially altered as unborn, or newborn calves, birthed every 2 to 5 years, might fight their demise. Ironically, scientists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have found the average age of manatees killed by watercraft is 7 years, prime age for sexually mature females to give birth – this coincidence possibly more detrimental than any other factor.
It is a common understanding that other imminent problems persist, making life for the Florida manatee perilous. Loss of habitat from busy coastline development restricts distribution and pollution encumbers feeding behaviour and reproduction processes. Robert Bonde, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and Florida Integrated Science Center, informed me fish hooks and monofilament line cause manatee deaths as well. I was confounded to learn some wandering manatees also find their fate being crushed or drowned in flood gates.
This portfolio examines the co-existence of man and manatee in the state of Florida.
Aerial photography was made possible by LightHawk.
Tripods in the Sky is an initiative of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and LightHawk that helps partner professional photographers with conservation organizations for the creation of visual materials on a specific region or issue.