Most residents and tourists relish seeing a Florida manatee, the seagoing mammal distantly related to the elephant. Each year thousands travel to Crystal River, the TECO Manatee Viewing Center at Apollo Beach and other coastal areas to view the sad-eyed manatee.
Yet, there are still some thoughtless individuals who treat the endangered and gentle creature with reckless disdain. They speed their boats through manatee protection zones, harass them by pulling their paddles (tails) and even try to ride them.
As the summer boating season gets underway with the Memorial Day weekend, it is a good time to remind people to thoughtfully share the water with the beasts that are said to have been the unlikely inspiration for the mermaid legend. And that had to have been a very desperate or very drunk sailor to mistake the 1,000-pound manatee for an underwater beauty.
The manatee has made an impressive comeback, but it remains endangered. Last year the state documented a record 803 deaths, with toxic red tide killing close to 300. But collisions with boats remain a major threat, and it is rare to see a manatee, even calves, without telltale prop scars on their backs.
Boaters can do their part by conscientiously complying with the manatee zones that require slow speeds. The zones are a small sacrifice to make for protecting a fascinating creature that brings wonder — and commerce — to our waters.
And although swimming with the manatees is a thrill, people should keep their distance. Unfortunately, some knuckleheads get their thrills grabbing and riding these gentle creatures. Last year videos captured people jumping off docks onto a manatee. Such cruelty is a misdemeanor that can bring a $500 fine and 60 days in jail.
Anyone who sees manatees being mistreated should report it to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Protection Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone. Or a text message can be sent to Tip@MyFWC.com.
The pelican is another coastal creature that merits our care.
The astute fish catchers sometimes target fishermen’s bait and become hooked or entangled in the lines. This may be annoying to the angler, but it too often is fatal for the bird.
As Tampa Audubon warns, “Pelicans with fishing hooks and line caught in their throats or tangled around wings, legs or bodies ... are at severe risk of entanglement as they roost, causing slow, painful deaths. When adult birds die, they leave chicks orphaned to succumb to predation and starvation.”
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “trauma caused by fishing gear is the greatest cause of mortality in brown pelicans.”
Fortunately, this is avoidable in most cases if anglers take certain precautions.
Local conservationists have produced a useful brochure — “What to Do If You Hook a Pelican” — that details, with instructions and photographs, how fishermen can safely release the endangered shore bird.
Of course, it’s better not to hook a pelican — or any bird, particularly sharp-beaked herons or egrets.
The brochure, produced by Tampa Audubon, Manatee County Audubon and Audubon Florida, also offers hints for reducing the chances of a unwelcome hookup. A key step is to avoid feeding birds, including fish-cleaning scraps or leftover bait.
The pamphlet can be ordered by calling Audubon’s Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries office at 813-623-6826 and can be downloaded at www.tampaaudubon.org or at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s website, tbep.org.
The FWC aptly calls the pelican a charismatic symbol of the Florida coast. Much the same can be said of the manatee. They, like all native creatures, deserve consideration as we enjoy our magnificent coastal waters.