A group of Gainesville residents gathered as the sun began to gleam. They were ready to watch. Not a football game or a flash mob, but something far more squishy.
They were looking for manatees.
The Florida Springs Heartland Manatee Sighting Network, a citizen-science program started by the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department in 2022, announced a need for volunteers last summer.
The network encourages citizens to report when and where they see manatees in springs and rivers in and surrounding Alachua County. The project monitors manatees from October to March.
After a startling death count in January, manatee mortality rates in Florida are at their slowest in three years. But this does not mean they are out of the deep end, as the overall mortality rate is still high.
To be sure, environmentalists urged the need to protect manatees during this time as they seek a solution to the problem. Information from the reports is being sorted through, but once compiled, it will be used to shape policies and restoration projects in the county and surrounding areas.
“We really need people to help because if they don’t, nothing will change,” project organizer Lindsey Pavao said.
The network began during an extended period of unexpectedly high manatee death counts, known as an unusual mortality event, that began in 2020 and has not ceased.
Pavao and the network’s other organizers, including Alachua County Environmental Protection Department, Save the Manatee Club and the Florida Parks Service, have committed themselves to helping manatees through this period.
Out of all the rivers where monitoring takes place, the Suwanee River boasted the most sightings.
“We want people to see that there are manatees here and that by protecting their water, we’re essentially protecting our water,” Pavao said.
Manatees can be found in the region year-round but are more common during the winter, as they wander in search of warm water; the springs, where the water temperature is greater than 68 degrees Fahrenheit, attract the manatee through its arduous aquatic adventure.
As water quality and manatee food supplies continue to dwindle in other parts of Florida, the secondary warm water habitats become more important. Their rise in relevance brought in a grant totaling $8,300 through the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida’s Protect Florida Springs Tag Grant program. Funds for this grant are raised from the sale of Florida Springs license plates.
With the help of grant money and volunteers, the network found previously unrecorded information about the county’s manatees. The mammals depend on the water level to move around – none were seen in the Santa Fe River or springs in the project’s first four months because of low water levels. What was previously inferred now had data behind it, according to Pavao.
“This is the first sighting network in this area of Florida,” Pavao said.
By partnering with Save the Manatee Club and multiple agencies collecting manatee data, Pavao said the overarching goal is to design the most consensus manatee data possible.
No manatees have died in Alachua County this year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Around the state, manatee deaths are decreasing from the rapid rise over the last three years. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s preliminary manatee mortality table revealed 227 manatees have died in the state through March 31.
That is the lowest total at this point on the calendar since 2020 and about 250 fewer manatee deaths than at the end of March last year. Still, some environmentalists continue to be concerned for the mammal.
Zack Jud, who has a doctorate in biology from Florida International University, is the director of education for the Florida Oceanographic Society. His focus is more on game fish, but he said manatees have become crucial to overall ecosystem health.
“Manatees have become a canary in a coal mine for me. What’s good for them is good for the fish that I study and care about – and that’s clean water and healthy seagrass,” Jud said.
Like its colloquial namesake, the sea cow is a grazing animal. They help prevent vegetation from becoming overgrown and feed on invasive plant species. Fully grown manatees can eat 100 pounds of aquatic plants a day according to the Florida Oceanographic Society. Their status as a Florida icon is perhaps only matched by the Florida panther, the alligator and the ever-elusive “Florida Man.”
Manatees have no real natural predator, so when they die off in excess numbers it is reflective of an overarching problem.
The South Florida-based Florida Oceanographic Society aided the state with seagrass restoration. They primarily work in the Indian River Lagoon – a sanctuary for manatees in Brevard County that suffered because of the regression in food supply and water quality.
Jud boiled down the problem to a lack of sustainable forage in the Indian River Lagoon for the number of manatees it living there. He said one of two scenarios is inevitable:
Either the manatee population decreases and the lack of seagrass is not a problem, or the seagrass level increases to a point where the waters can sustain a greater number of manatees.
For the second year in a row, the state attempted to curb the winter curse by directly feeding the aquatic mammal. This measure is not usually taken but was deemed necessary because of the unusual mortality event.
More than 399,000 pounds of romaine lettuce was fed to the mammals from December to March. The program targets a site in the Indian River Lagoon next to a power plant. Manatees gather there in the winter months because the plant warms the surrounding waters.
This year’s mission cost $250,000 mostly collected from private donors. Manatee deaths decreased. Despite the effort, it has not been deemed a solution.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lead veterinarian Martine de Wit said it will take time to evaluate everything, but whatever is found will help them prepare for the future. As of now, the supplemental feeding program is a temporary solution to the area’s sea cattle crisis.
“This is only a Band-Aid, not an actual solution. We’re all going to figure this out together,” said de Wit.
The decline in deaths does not necessarily tell the whole story, according to de Wit. With the unusual mortality event ongoing, she speculated the drop-off in deaths was linked to a lower population and therefore a lower opportunity for them to die. She said the latest coastal manatee population numbers – around 5,700 from a survey in 2019 – most likely do not reflect the number of manatees in Florida today.
Now, the urgency in seeking support has heightened for environmentalists.
Pavao, Jud and de Wit directed the next steps in restoration to the public. They believe humans have an opportunity to better the water for both the creatures living in it and for themselves.
“They’re iconic, and I hope people can see that what’s good for them is good for humanity,” Pavao said.
“Manatees were here before we were and deserve our protection,” de Wit said.
“The unusual mortality event should have been the thing that was finally big and bad enough to push people to action. We have a real uphill battle to try and fix Florida’s waters. This needs to change,” Jud said.
At the forefront of the fight is a call for cleaner water. As pollution grows, manatees die off.
Algae blooms are the most influential detriment to manatees in Florida, and according to Jud, they mostly stem from chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorus being dumped into waterways through the means of fertilizer and waste. These blooms cause the water to become murky and make it so seagrass gardens are unable to receive the sunlight needed to grow. Jud also blamed canals for introducing freshwater into seawater and killing off the intolerant seagrass through salinity changes.
On the west coast of Florida, a different red tide bloom is beginning to take manatee lives, according to de Wit.
The Florida Springs Heartland Manatee Sighting Network is dependent on citizen science, which is the collection of data by the community and prioritizes public performance. Although the monitoring went on for six months, Alachua County residents are still developing their local manatee knowledge.
He said he sees manatees all the time and knows their sweet spots; to him, there’s no greater reason to live than to help the world he paddles through.
“I saw one [manatee] all the time and named him Jerry,” Parker said. “Now, I don’t know if that’s his real name, but whenever” he sees someone disrespecting the water, “I think of Jerry.”
Some residents believe the restoration process should be entirely up to the government. Marcus Cammy, 36, takes his two children to visit the springs in the region. He said the government needs to find a solution to this, not him.
“Why should I have to change what I do if the government doesn’t make me? I don’t have time to volunteer or donate $5 to help a cause,” Cammy said as he gestured to his family in the distance.
As the winter season closes and manatee monitoring continues to change, Pavao’s intentions remain the same: continue her fascination that started as a 5-year-old from Arizona who thought Christopher Columbus was silly for mistaking a manatee for a mermaid.
“I’m doing my best. That’s better than nothing,” Pavao said.