Scars from run-ins with boat propellers are now being used to track and identify Florida's manatees.
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2002
TAMPA -- The manatee calf poked its nose out of the murky water, then sank back beneath the waves. Biologist Kristin Fick snapped one picture of it, then pointed her Canon back at the four or five adult manatees splashing nearby.
Fick could see that the calf floating in the canal near the Gandy Bridge still had smooth gray skin. She did not want to waste film on anything without a slashed back, amputated flippers or chopped-up tail.
"We're looking for scars," said Fick, who works at the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
Those old injuries, caused by encounters with boat propellers, are the the only foolproof way for humans to tell one manatee from another -- and that has given rise to this ambitious project.
Squirreled away in black binders stacked on homemade pine shelves in cramped offices in St. Petersburg and Gainesville are more than 30,000 slides of scarred and mangled manatees from around Florida. The slides document the lives of about 2,000 of the animals.
Cross-referenced and catalogued by computer, the ever-growing slide collection forms the Manatee Photo ID database, the most extensive portrait ever compiled of any marine mammal species. Now, that database could play a vital role in the future of the species.
State and federal wildlife officials will consider next year whether manatees still deserve to be designated as "endangered," a decision likely to affect boating regulations and waterfront development. They expect the photo ID program to help them answer key questions about the manatee population.
Of course, what makes the program work also constitutes one of the biggest risks to the manatees' future: Virtually all of them have been hurt by boat propellers at some point in their lives.
Every year scores of manatees are killed by boats while others somehow survive. If it weren't for the survivors' scars, telling one manatee apart from another would be virtually impossible. The scars are like fingerprints -- albeit fingerprints carved with a buzzsaw.
"It's a horrible way to get our information," said Cathy Beck, who runs the photo ID program for the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville in cooperation with the Florida Marine Research Institute.
Clicking through the computerized database last week, Beck called up photos of Popeye, a manatee sighted in Crystal River with its left side slashed open so that its muscles were exposed; Phalanges, an Atlantic coast manatee whose shredded tail resembles waving fingers; and Whatamess, a Brevard County manatee named for the complex pattern of wounds on its back.
"I've seen animals that you just can't even believe are still alive," Beck said. "We've gotten pretty hardened about seeing pictures of animals that have been sliced open and are still swimming around."
Nearly all the manatees in the database have more than one set of propeller scars. The slides for one Crystal River manatee show it with a full spoon-shaped tail in 1991, a chunk missing in 1994 and about half of it gone by 1999.
"That's why we have to keep up -- they've acquired scars at a pretty rapid rate," Beck said.
In fact, biologists want to use the database to calculate a "scar acquisition rate," and see if it corresponds to boat speed regulations.
What makes such research possible is that the database covers four decades, an astounding amount of documentation for a single species, Beck said. Not bad for a collection that started out as a few snapshots taken by a teenager with a Kodak Instamatic.
But when James "Buddy" Powell was growing up there in the 1960s, "there were people in Crystal River who didn't really know they were there.
In 1967, Daniel Hartman showed up and changed everything. Hartman, a long-haired doctoral student from Maine, had decided his dissertation would be on the little-known manatee.
When Hartman launched his little johnboat to begin his research, he attracted the attention of local fishermen such as Powell, a high-school student fascinated by anything aquatic.
"I saw this strange guy on the river," Powell said. "He wasn't fishing. He wasn't diving. He was clearly out of place. I wondered, why is he on my river?"
Powell struck up a conversation with Hartman, who saw the inquisitive teen had a faster boat. Hartman deputized Powell as his assistant, one whose duties included snapping pictures underwater with a Kodak in a second-hand waterproof case.
Even then, Hartman and Powell were able to tell the manatees apart by their propeller scars. They gave the homely animals names like Sadie and Orville.
In 1969, Hartman wrote a landmark piece for National Geographic magazine that attracted filmmaker Jacques Cousteau to Crystal River to profile the "vanishing mermaids." Those two events spurred the public's interest in manatees, leading to its listing as one of the first endangered species in 1972.
The association with Hartman led Powell, who now works for the conservation group Wildlife Trust, to a career studying manatees. In 1974, when he was working as a federal biologist, Powell remembered his old snapshots and gathered them into a single book of manatee mugshots that also included pictures from National Geographic and the Cousteaus.
That marked the beginning of the photo ID database. It has been greatly supplemented over the years by people like Beck's husband, Bob Bonde, who every winter for 20 years has splashed into Crystal River's clear water to photograph the manatees huddled in the warmth of its spring-fed flow.
The manatees Bonde has documented include a few first studied by Hartman. One is Sadie, who has survived all this time despite having a tail in tatters.
Throughout the 1990s researchers also conducted aerial surveys of the manatee population each winter when the cold-sensitive creatures flock to springs and power plant outfalls. But the surveys depend on fickle weather conditions and the ability of researchers in low-flying planes to count marine animals rarely found at the surface.
Last year's survey found 3,276, or about 1,000 more than the year before, even though clearly there were not that many new manatees born.
Disagreements about the meaning of the aerial counts have fueled the controversy over efforts to protect manatees by restricting boaters and marina builders. Those groups contend the 2001 survey showed that there are now enough manatees to take them off the endangered list.
Last month, most of the world's manatee researchers gathered in Gainesville for the first time in a decade. They agreed that population estimates should not be based on the aerial surveys, but on the photo ID program.
"Nobody deserves to die alone'
A year ago veteran angler Bob Smith of Plant City was fishing for trout in Tampa Bay when he saw another boat hit something and speed away. As Smith and three fishing buddies got closer, they saw a spreading red stain and heard the hiss of air from a manatee with punctured lungs.
"Then the manatee started coming up and I could see that it had been hit at least 12 to 14 times, from shoulder to tail," Smith said. "It was pitiful. We actually got out and held and touched her."
He said they tried to comfort the fatally wounded animal because "nobody deserves to die alone."
Later the carcass was hauled to Florida Marine Research Institute. Before biologists dissected it and discovered the dead manatee had been pregnant, Fick searched the photo ID database.
"She looked familiar to me," Fick said. Sure enough, the dead manatee was Ragtail, well-known to researchers and a featured creature in the Save the Manatee Club's fundraising program.
Sometimes death offers the final chance to document a manatee's life.
Last week, for the first time this year, a speeding boat killed a manatee in Pinellas County. Teco, so named because it was originally seen in the early 1990s off Tampa Electric's power plant in Apollo Beach, was found floating in Clearwater Harbor, dead from a fractured skull.
Although Teco was already in the database, researchers had not documented any sightings since 1994. In the eight intervening years, Teco apparently had encountered another boat that chopped off part of its tail.
Fick snapped photos of the carcass, in case the wound might correspond to pictures in the database of as-yet unidentified manatees. That would give biologists some idea of where Teco has been all this time.
The fact that so many manatees get sliced open and keep going has researchers wondering about their ability to recover, and whether getting clobbered might harm their already slow reproductive rate. That, too, will be investigated using the photo ID database.
"Everyone is real concerned about manatees being killed," Beck said, "but people forget about what the effects are of being hit, and hit, and hit."
-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
To see a gallery of color pictures from the Manatee Photo ID database, go to www.sptimes.com/State.shtml and click on the link to Painful reminders.