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Mo tries flippers in bay area

A group of manatee trackers hopes the fourth time's a charm as the well-known mammal heads south, venturing into Tampa Bay.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published March 31, 2006


CRYSTAL RIVER - Mo, probably the most recognizable manatee in the Crystal River area this winter, has finally decided to move on.

As the official manatee wintering season winds down today - and manatee sanctuaries are reopened to the public on Saturday - Mo has made his way to Tampa Bay. He was last seen this week checking out the cruise ships, said Monica Ross of Wildlife Trust, which tracks Mo and other previously captive manatees.

That is good news for Mo, who for a while was looking like he might end up in captivity for the fourth time.

Mo was released for his third shot at being wild in Kings Bay in August. After previous releases he ended up in trouble. The first time he landed in the Dry Tortugas, which is not normal manatee habitat. The second time he got hit by a boat and was found emaciated.

After his August release, Mo hung close by the bay for some time. As Ross followed Mo's progress, she noticed that he was losing weight and by the end of December wildlife officials had decided to recapture him.

But Mo had other ideas. He led the capture boat on a chase through the bay and into the Magnolia Springs and Three Sisters Springs area and then eluded them.

Since then Mo has been gaining weight. "We would see him feeding quite frequently," Ross said.

She is a bit concerned because now Mo is in saltwater in Tampa Bay. His last visit to saltwater was confounding because he had lost weight and appeared not to be eating. Still, during his last stay in captivity, Mo was taught to recognize and eat saltwater vegetation. "We're hoping he'll make the transition," she said.

Ross will continue to track Mo. For more information on Mo and other manatees tracked through the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership, go to www.wildtracks.org

While Mo's travels have made him a well-known animal, the radio tag attached to his tail has also brought Mo much attention. In that case, the attention has not helped him.

At one point during the winter, Ross observed five manatee tour boats stop by Mo to allow their customers to get in the water. The radio tag transmitter floats above the surface of the water and makes him the easiest animal to spot.

Ross was so concerned that the human interaction might harm Mo's chances of making it in the wild that she asked local tour boat operators to steer clear of him.

Interactions with the hundreds of other manatees in area waters this winter has also landed Crystal River in the middle of the manatee protection spotlight.

Former members of the volunteer Manatee Water group, Steve Kingery and Tracy Colson, traded in their manatee watch credentials for video cameras. They have filmed hours of footage of people in Kings Bay and surrounding waters as they violate the basic manatee interaction rules. They continue to film and gather statistical information about public contact with manatees.

To see some of their footage, go to links.tampabay.com.

There were plenty of manatees to watch for this year. An all-time high was counted Feb. 6. An aerial survey that day turned up 438 manatees.

The video footage released by Kingery and Colson comes just before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begins the process this fall of drawing up a new comprehensive management plan for the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Refuge manager Jim Kraus has said that he thinks the area has already reached its capacity for the interactive tours and that new rules and new restrictions could be the outcome of that planning process.

"It's been coming for a long time," Kingery said. "It's just that now it's gotten a public voice."

He added that, even though the manatee season is ending, people still need to be mindful of the animals. Many manatees stay in the area all year. "Just because the sanctuaries go away doesn't mean that the rules stop," he said. "Harassment actually is worse in the summer because manatees are out there just trying to do their manatee things."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 31, 2006, 01:08:15]


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