Four years ago, I would’ve NEVER imagined that I would be working to conserve the West Indian Manatee. Four years ago, my opinion on manatees was bleak. To the average Joe, these impressive creatures would be characterized as “huge floating rocks”, drifting aimlessly north and south through migration patterns. Little did I know that my outlook on manatees would extend beyond simple admiration into a profound respect.
Interviewing for this position in early January was, to be quite honest, bittersweet. My passion was fixated solely on the fact that I would be by/in water. I was looking forward to kayaking and swimming in the beautiful Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (CRNWR). Little did I know that I wouldn’t be participating in any of those activities. Furthermore, little did I know that four months later, manatees would inevitably be one of my favorite aquatic mammals.
Day one at work revolutionized my mentality entirely. As I walked up the boardwalk, I started to glimpse slivers of the MOST intense, blue water that I have ever seen. I hurriedly sped to the end of this seemingly infinite path, only to be greeted by the most captivating image. A pure blue horizon speckled with around 300 dark grey aggregate blobs welcomed me. Honestly, it absolutely took my breath away. After realizing that an outdoor office couldn’t possibly get any better, I caught a glance at the SWEETEST sight. The most beautiful, innocent manatee calf had meandered to the nearest snorkeler and flipped completely upside- down asking for belly rubs. I had never anthropomorphized manatees until this moment. I had never realized how beautifully human these animals are. Their intense social bonds, complex vocalizations, and affinity for affection blew me away. This was the moment I realized how thankful I was to be able to call CRNWR my outdoor office.
The research I was participating in was “Manatee- Human Interactions”, facilitated by Carl Wolfe and Rae Ellen Syverson. My tasks were to sit at either a boardwalk or elevated platform and record human- manatee interactions, manatee activity, or manatee movement both in and out of the springs. I was stationary for 4 hours, diligently recording my observations while taking time to interact with incoming tourists. Yeah, I know, 4 hours in one spot can be TAXING. However, these hours sped by with ease. On days where opportunities of observation were low, I would take time to do (in my opinion) the MOST important aspect of conservation- education. Not only did I educate others, but I learned something new every single day. It’s mind- blowing how intelligent the visitors of CRNWR were. They asked questions that I would have no idea the answer to, which was wonderful because I would take these moments as learning opportunities as well. Starting with minimal knowledge of the West Indian Manatee, I had gained an insurmountable span of knowledge. I feel like I could write a 20 page dissertation of just West Indian Manatee facts. Towards the end of manatee season, I felt a heavy weight on my chest. The thought of having to leave this wonderful Refuge and its volunteers broke my heart, but the passion of manatee conservation will never fade. I look forward to becoming a regular volunteer or visitor in the next manatee season.
Multitude of Manatees! (Over 150 here)
Picture Credits: Joyce Kleen
I will forever be thankful to my wonderful boss, Travis Thomas. I will forever be endowed to Rae Ellen Syverson and Carl Wolfe for helping to instill in me a passion for West Indian Manatees. Thank you Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Nature Coast Biological Station, UF/IFAS, and USFWS for making this experience BEYOND enjoyable for me.