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Woman seen riding manatee at Fort De Soto turns herself in

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 03:20 PM

She probably saw the manatee in shallow water and thought it would be fun to connect with nature.

But she went too far when she climbed on the mammal's back at Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County and went for a ride, authorities say.

A witness took photos of the ride just north of the park's Gulf Pier, and the photos went viral. Someone contacted the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

By day's end, the woman had turned herself in and faces the possibility of being prosecuted on a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Manatees are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, the federal Marine Mammal Act and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act.

It's illegal to harass, disturb or pursue sea cows, which includes feeding them and certainly riding one, said Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for the Save the Manatee Club.

"If you care about the animal and you like manatees, you need to keep your distance," Tripp said. "You should treat manatees with the same respect of a wild animal and give them space."

While manatees might look docile, they are strong, weigh about 1,000 pounds and can react unpredictably when startled, Tripp said.

"That paddle tail they have is so strong and powerful," Tripp said. "You don't want to be on the receiving end of that tail."

Interaction with people makes manatees more likely to seek out humans, which can put the sea cows in harm's way, said Gary Morse, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. And riding them could increase their stress, he said.

Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez turned herself in to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday evening. The 52-year-old St. Petersburg resident told deputies she was new to the area and didn't understand the regulations protecting them.

Deputies said they couldn't immediately arrest Gutierrez because they didn't see her interaction with the manatee but that they would forward the information to the State Attorney's Office for possible prosecution.


jpatino@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7659 Twitter: @jpatinoTrib

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