The manatees that winter at Blue Spring State Park are like family to a ranger who welcomes them back, catalogs their injuries, then bids them a worried goodbye come spring.
By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2002
ORANGE CITY -- Wayne Hartley shoves his canoe off the bank and heads for deeper water.
Stowing his paddle, he grabs his notebook and writes furiously. So begins a winter ritual he has observed for almost a quarter of a century. At Blue Spring State Park, about an hour north of Orlando, his business is counting manatees.
"Is that you, Destiny?"
She was found half-starved. Sea World removed the plastic she had somehow ingested and fattened her up with real food. Released at Blue Spring, she seems to be doing fine if you ignore boat propeller scars on her back.
"Look over here," Hartley calls out. A small manatee bumps the bottom of the canoe. "It's Bertram."
Separated from his mother when he was a young'un, Bertram became famished enough to eat grotty sticks instead of delicious grass. After time in rehab, he was ready for release, too. Now Wayne Hartley can write Bertram into his notebook.
Hartley, 57, has had quite a few jobs in his life. He was in the Army for a dozen years and later worked at Sears. He missed the outdoors and became a park ranger.
In the winter, Hartley is sure he has the best job in Florida. As temperatures dip into the 60s in the adjacent St. Johns River, manatees take refuge in the 72-degree water of Blue Spring. On a canoe voyage that lasts only a third of a mile, Hartley sometimes counts the noses of 150 of the warm-blooded creatures while tourists gawk from a boardwalk. The park during cold weather is the easiest place in Florida to watch wild manatees.
"I have fun," Hartley says.
Come April, when manatees leave the spring for the dangerous world beyond the ropes, Hartley is less sure he has the best job. Like the parent of a teenager taking the car out for a night on the town, he feels that familiar gnawing in his heart. His anxiety will linger until November when the manatees return.
"I'd say almost every one that comes back has a new scar or two," he says.
Some don't come back at all.
Asking boaters to slow down for gentle manatees might seem like a no-brainer. But it's not, especially this year. The boating industry, fed up with speed restrictions and refuges where watercraft are unwelcome, wants the Florida Legislature to get manatees off its back. Among other things, boating lobbyists propose taking manatees off the endangered species list, saying manatees are plentiful enough.
Manatees, which can measure a dozen feet and weigh more than a ton, are awesome animals. But they're also the world's most lackadaisical swimmers.
They have no natural enemies beyond cold and disease. Born pacifists, they mind their business and float about the surface like giant sweet potatoes. When it would be prudent to crash dive toward the bottom -- say when a speeding boat is approaching -- they generally poke along, oblivious.
Sometimes Wayne Hartley has to drive his truck across Florida to the state necropsy lab in St. Petersburg. Nothing bothers him more than counting one of his precious manatees as it lies dead on the steel examining table.
"Where is Jethro?"
Jethro isn't as friendly as he once was. When Jethro arrived at Blue Spring in November, he bore fresh scars on his back from a boat encounter. Now he's nervous around even Hartley's canoe.
Hartley drew a sketch of Jethro that showed the new scars. Tracking the scars allows him to tell manatees apart. As years go by and manatees collect new scars, Hartley adds to his sketchbook.
"There he is."
Jethro definitely seems leery of boats. For a manatee, fear of humans and their machines is a good life skill.
Last year, more than a third of the 325 manatees that landed on the state necropsy table were victims of watercraft. Last month, 53 manatees died in Florida waters, including 18 from boat collisions. It was the worst month for manatees and boats since the state started keeping records in 1974.
Nobody knows for sure if the state's manatee population is stable, getting larger or decreasing. Counting them accurately is almost impossible.
Last year, biologists in blimps and airplanes tried anyway and came up with 3,276 manatees -- about a thousand more than the year before. Did that mean the manatee population was exploding? Or did scientists count some manatees twice because of turbid water or because they misidentified scars?
The most important manatee question of all has yet to be answered with authority. Does the death rate exceed the birth rate?
Manatees are slow to mature and to breed. Gestation lasts 13 months, and many newborns don't survive more than a few weeks. Cold weather or a sick or boat-injured mother can doom a calf. Some calves are abandoned or lose track of their mothers.
"Some plain don't mind their mothers," Hartley says. "You know their mothers are calling them. But they'd rather play."
Manatees are a tourist attraction in Citrus county. Divers and snorkelers at Crystal River love nothing more than swimming close enough for a brief commune with an endangered species. Some manatees tolerate the attention, but others don't. A diver never knows until the manatee flees.
At Blue Spring, manatees also are a tourist attraction. But hundreds of daily winter tourists do their watching from the boardwalk. Swimming is allowed only in places the manatees avoid, or when the manatees are away.
"We don't want the manatees to get used to people," Hartley says. "We'd rather for them to be a little scared of us. They'll remain healthier that way."
Hartley has joined the manatees in the drink several times. He and the manatees were unhappy about going nose to nose. In both cases, a sleeping manatee woke up and surfaced for a breath. At the wrong time and place.
Right under Hartley's canoe.
"If they slap your canoe with their tails you're in the water."
Like most middle-aged men, Hartley no longer is the svelte creature he once was. He makes a big splash.
The nervous manatees fled for the cold river. But some hung around to chortle.
"Manatees all have different personalities. Some are so shy they hate it when we're doing construction near the spring and using electric saws. But some aren't scared of anything. They'll hug the canoe -- or you."
Is that Arnold? Arnold is asleep in 8 feet of water next to a fallen oak limb. "For years he was hanging out at a Cape Canaveral sewer plant. Then he showed up here. Arnold, you made a wise decision."
Hartley points out Eustis and Banks, manatees he named after Civil War generals. Brutus is lurking somewhere; Brutus has wintered at Blue Springs since 1974, when Jacques Cousteau filmed him and made him a star.
Hartley's newest celebrity is probably Stormy. Born in captivity in Miami, he spent most of his life in Tampa at the Lowry Park Zoo. Scientists wanted to give a healthy captive-born manatee a chance to experience freedom. A few weeks ago he was fitted with a radio transmitter and released at Blue Spring.
"We're not sure how he's doing."
Befuddled, Stormy swims in relentless circles, as if he's still confined to a tank, and seems to lack manatee social skills. Hartley worries about him. Stormy's back is gray and smooth. The price of his freedom most likely will mean encountering a boat when weather warms up and he leaves Blue Spring.
Boat registrations in Florida last year climbed to 860,000. While most boat owners are happy enough to cruise slowly through manatee habitat, some people who sell boats, build on waterfront property and rent marina slips have been on the attack. They believe that additional speed restrictions and refuges are unnecessary -- especially if the manatee population is growing, as they contend it is.
Boating industry lobbyists propose removing manatees from the endangered species list. They have also convinced some legislators to back a proposed new law, the Manatee Protection Act, which declares among other things that speed regulations "shall not unduly interfere with the rights of fishers, boaters and other traditional waterway users." Environmental groups oppose the proposed law.
A hundred miles by car from the state capital, where manatee political wars take place, Wayne Hartley floats down the peaceful spring in his canoe.
"The worst injury I ever saw? That had to be Success," Wayne Hartley says, stowing his paddle. "She showed up in the spring one November looking like she was deformed. Her side had been more or less caved in by a boat. Her ribs were literally sticking out her flesh. She was gruesome to even look at.
"I don't know how she did it, but she survived. Her wounds healed. She gained weight. She mated. She even had several calves and raised them."
After the last calving season she left the spring for the river and beyond.
Hartley hasn't seen her since.