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Soaking up their new refuge

It's the time of year when manatees look for warmer waters. This year, they found something new: an area near the Homosassa Springs Wildlife park.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published February 19, 2007


HOMOSASSA SPRINGS

As the mist rose off the water's surface into a growing sunlight, something below the surface was stirring up the waters.

Where once only a few determined manatees would swim the shallow, silt-clogged gauntlet from the Homosassa Blue Waters up to the Long River Bridge at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, now the zone is quite the manatee social spot.

One cold morning last week, a park volunteer guessed that as many as 100 of the creatures were in that area at dawn.

Within just a couple of hours, many had swum out into the river seeking food and to explore. But a few hung close to the bridge, appearing to almost be watching the park's captive female manatees through the double fencing that separates the wild from the captive sea cows.

Wild manatee numbers at the bridge were "100 percent better," according to 14-year park volunteer George Schulz, who spends six to seven days each week at the park during the winter season.

At first light, he said, there were easily 40 manatees just pressed up against the fence resting and sleeping in preparation for another day of foraging.

"I had never seen that number before," Schulz said. "It's hard to believe how many more come up here than before the dredging."

Last summer a project more than a half dozen years in the making was finally accomplished at the park. The area between the park's outer boundary at the Homosassa Blue Waters and the Long River Bridge was sucked clean of clogging silt and muck.

Using money from the state and the Coastal Rivers Basin Board, a large dredge was brought into the zone to pull up years of sediment that included parts of the park's old limerock trails and muck dumped into the area in the storm surge of the 1993 no-name storm.

That material was vacuumed up and carted off, deepening the wide water expanse by 2 feet and more in some places. That meant that spots only 2 feet deep in low tides in the past were now double the depth.

For manatees, which are known for their girth, that extra water space meant the difference between access and no access to a wider area of warm, spring-fed waters which were already a natural sanctuary.

Man-made sanctuaries are marked by buoys out in the Blue Waters but the area inside the park now made accessible is also not open to people.

Just after park opening time, one woman with a camera strode up onto the bridge. Training her lens on the wild manatee side, she snapped some photos.

Cynthia Taylor is a wildlife researcher with Wildlife Trust. Part of her job is to photograph the scar patterns on nearly every wild manatee. The scars, usually caused by collisions with boats, are the manatee fingerprints researchers use to identify individuals and chart their histories.

On this morning, several of the animals have more than just propeller scars that resemble large fingernail scratches. Some have notches in their tails or whole sections missing from their tails.

For Taylor, the newly dredged area means she doesn't have to spend as much time photographing in the water. She can simply stand on the bridge and watch the hoards swim by.

"It's been great since the dredge," she said.

In addition to documenting the scar patterns for the Sirenia Project, she is also compiling information for a study funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That study will document manatee populations in the newly cleaned zone comparing last year before the dredging with this year and beyond.

Although Taylor has not yet crunched the numbers, she said her preliminary finding is that last year about 60 percent of the manatees in the area remained outside the park boundaries because they couldn't approach.

This year 60 percent or more are coming inside the safety of the park's waters because they can.

"The change has been dramatic," she said.

Helen Spivey, co-chair for the Save the Manatee Club, visited the bridge one day recently and was pleased to see wild manatees in the cleaned area.

"This helps them get closer to the warm water, plus it gives them an area where the north wind can't reach them," she said. "And it's an area where divers can't get to them."