Conservation

Blue Spring

On a serene January morning, we found ourselves alone on Blue Spring, navigating the waters in a small canoe, in total silence with no one else around. This moment of tranquility, before the state park welcomed the public, allowed us to engage in a quiet ritual of 'counting'. My presence in this humble canoe, gliding through Florida’s historic Blue Spring, was courtesy of Wayne Hartley, the region’s revered manatee specialist.

Words by Andi Cross
Photographs by Adam Moore

Each morning of the peak season, Wayne dedicates two hours to quietly counting the manatees that inhabit these waters. Accompanying Wayne for the past decade has been his protégé, Cora Berchem. Yet today, I had the privilege of taking her place. My interest in Wayne stems from his unparalleled dedication: four decades spent studying a single species, in a singular location, aboard this very same canoe. Such unwavering passion and dedication are rare treasures in our world, meriting celebration. It was this extraordinary commitment that drew the Edges of Earth expedition to this park, nestled just outside Orlando, in the heart of winter.

Stepping into the park an hour early, a place that welcomes nearly 700,000 visitors each year, felt surreal. The boardwalk, lined with signs sternly prohibiting swimming with, touching, or harassing the manatees, guided our cautious steps. Nearing the Blue Spring boil and gazing out to the spring, we saw what first appeared to be heaps of gigantic potatoes bobbing in the water. But upon closer examination, these ‘potatoes’ revealed themselves to actually be manatees, huddled together for warmth on these cold winter days. The exceptionally clear waters highlighted the beauty of these gatherings, providing an up-close glimpse into the lives of manatees seeking solace and warmth together.

But it wasn’t just manatees we encountered while walking to the boil. We were seeing supersized vultures, tilapia and alligators everywhere. Feeling like the kids that were going to be arriving in just shy of an hour, we were beaming, utterly stoked that we were seeing so much wildlife in a concentrated area. While trying to contain our excitement, we ran right into the legend himself, meaning it was time to start the count.

Wayne’s routine was second nature, honed through countless mornings in the spring. Effortlessly, he’d prepare the canoe, gather his recording tools, and share tales of yesteryears, every single story punctuated with a chuckle. Within moments of meeting him, I discovered his journey from military service to becoming a park ranger in 1976, which is when manatees became his life’s work.

His fascination with these gentle giants mirrors that of many: their size, slow pace, and seemingly playful nature enchant onlookers. Yet, it’s this very allure that poses a threat to manatees, as people often intrude too closely, driven by a desire to interact directly. Blue Spring State Park has had to enforce strict regulations to protect these creatures from human encroachment.

During the winter months, manatees gravitate towards the warm waters of Florida’s springs, a behaviour crucial for their survival. As they forage for seagrass, their primary food source, the colder weather necessitates seeking out sanctuaries like Blue Spring, where the water remains around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature is optimal for their wellbeing, prompting stringent regulations to prevent human interactions that could disturb their essential rest, feeding, and warmth. At this vulnerable time, even minimal human interference can significantly impact their ability to endure the winter.

Manatee conservation efforts in Florida are as diverse as the state’s attractions, influenced by the heavy flow of tourists and the expansion of residential areas. Unlike Blue Spring State Park’s protective measures, places like Crystal River and Weeki Wachee on Florida’s west coast offer designated areas for direct human-manatee interactions through swimming, snorkeling, and diving. This difference in conservation methods highlights the nuanced risks manatees face across different habitats. Beyond human contact, manatees are increasingly threatened by boat strikes and entanglement, presenting significant challenges to their populations statewide.

The reality for Florida’s manatee population is often painted with grim headlines such as ‘Florida manatees dying off at an alarming rate, experts say‘, and urgent calls like ‘put manatees back on the endangered listdue to human impacts and climate change posing significant risks. However, amidst this bleak outlook from 2023, January and February of 2024 brought a wave of optimism to the Sunshine State. And a lot of that was because of the work Wayne and Cora do through Save the Manatee Club. Founded in 1981 by Jimmy Buffett and Governor of Florida Bob Graham, this nonprofit and membership organisation is entirely focused on the conservation and protection of these species.

That morning, Wayne and I counted 736 manatees with 80 calves in the spring, with Cora on shores counting to cross reference. Because of the water clarity and our stocktake starting early in the morning, it was not hard to count the hundreds of calm potatoes taking little peaks at us and swimming slowly around us to get a closer look. This was the record count of the park. When Wayne initially began his practice of counting, he was only seeing 36 manatees. Four decades later, seeing this much population growth, he was calmly thrilled, chuckling about such a big victory. He said: “There’s more of everything here at Blue Spring.”

The park rangers had alerted the masses about this record breaking moment, and so there was a line down the street of visitors hoping to take a look by 8:30am. “This is what happens when we enforce the regulations and set best practices for how to protect these animals,” Wayne said. “And I couldn’t do any of this without Cora. I didn’t know if I’d ever find someone to fill my shoes, but I have certainly found that in her.”

Cora serves as the Director of Multimedia & Manatee Research Associate at Save the Manatee Club. Working closely with Wayne, she plays a pivotal role in the seasonal manatee counts across 19 transects, dedicating her expertise to analysing data, authoring impact reports, and refining conservation strategies based on the findings.

Their collaborative efforts contribute to a statewide database, providing valuable insights into the effectiveness of Blue Spring’s conservation measures compared to others in Florida. Beyond her research responsibilities, Cora spearheads the marketing and educational initiatives of Save the Manatee Club, aiming to keep the public well-informed, engaged, and proactive in manatee conservation efforts across the state.

Cora and Wayne occasionally support manatee rescue missions. At the time, Wayne was fawning over a manatee named Artemis, currently identified by a temporary satellite tracking device which is attached via a belt around the tail. This special manatee was rescued, rehabilitated and released as a combined effort with Save the Manatee Club as well as the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP). This is a collective of organisations that are all working together to conserve and protect manatees in Florida – where the community rallies together for a common cause.

The process of reintegrating manatees like Artemis into the wild is not only expensive, but also quite difficult when it comes to reacclimating these creatures to their former habitats. On the canoe, we observed a professional dive team of marine biologists from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, who are in charge of tagging and tracking recently released manatees. These researchers were using the tracking device to monitor her progress towards becoming a wild manatee

Despite the newcomer’s presence, Wayne’s affection remained particularly strong for Cleburne, a manatee he has known for years and considers one of his favourites. Wayne’s unique naming convention for the manatees, inspired by his interests such as military generals, Star Wars, mythology, adds a personal touch to his decades-long career studying these animals.

We came to find out that on January 21, 2024, there was another record count, beating ours by a landslide. The 932 manatees counted by the park rangers had those who follow the manatee story in Florida utterly floored. Because of a surge in cold weather that week, manatees amassed in the safety of this protected spring. The collective efforts of this state park, Save the Manatee Club, US Fish & Wildlife Services and volunteers around the area were clearly paying off.

The success story at Blue Spring State Park is a powerful message: with stringent regulations, committed best practices, a supportive community, and teams that dedicate their heart and souls to conservation, harmonious coexistence with the planet’s remarkable species is an achievable feat. And the evidence was unmistakably present right before our eyes.

As we cruised around in Wayne’s vintage canoe, steam rose from the spring due to the temperature difference between the water and in the air. Wayne was able to effortlessly identify every manatee based solely on their boat strike injuries and body markings. Watching him interact with the animals as if they were his family, I knew this would be one of those stories we would tell throughout the rest of our expedition. An example of something gone right. An example of how much patience, hard work and commitment is required to make the necessary changes on behalf of the natural world. An example of what’s really possible.

 

Photographs by Adam Moore

Current issue

Back issues

Enjoy so much more from Oceanographic Magazine by becoming a subscriber.
A range of subscription options are available.