Manatee Madness

At Sea - September 2000
At Sea — September 2000
By Capt. Bill Pike

Manatee Madness
Gentle giant or giant problem? The controversy over Florida's official marine mammal strikes home.

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: The Best and the Brightest
• Part 2: The Best and the Brightest continued
 Related Resources
• At Sea Index
• Elecronics Editorial

It was a scorcher of a day. I was standing in the wheelhouse of the Scrumpy Vixen, one hand on the engine control and the other on the wheel, blithely cruising the Shell River, one of the many tea-color streams that crisscross the North Florida wilderness I live next to. As the Scrump rounded a bend, a charming little stern-drive runabout hove into view, its bow shoved into a sandy little spot of shade beneath a palm tree. There was a guy onboard drinking a soda, and a young woman was sitting next to him. Both were watching two little kids playing in the shallows nearby. Not wanting to disturb or endanger anybody, I pulled the Scrump's throttle back to dead idle, the responsible thing to do, although the swamps and bayous hereabouts are pretty much devoid of idle-speed, no-wake, or manatee zones. The family waved appreciatively. I waved back, and so did my lone passenger.

"We saw a manatee not too long ago," the guy said as we came abreast. He pointed toward a stretch of water that lay a few hundred yards ahead. The blonde-headed kids stopped playing with their brightly colored toy floats long enough to grin and point, too. "Manatee," they confirmed enthusiastically.

"Thanks," I replied, squinting into the glare through my polarized sunglasses, little suspecting that the peace of mind I usually enjoy while piloting a boat would shortly flee as if before a thousand demons. The trouble started as soon as I asked myself a couple of questions. First, was there indeed a manatee ahead, hanging out in a highly trafficked, unregulated section of river where I'd never seen or heard of manatees hanging out before? Or had the family merely misidentified a fair-size dolphin, a mammal common in the Shell River? And second, exactly how long should I reasonably and responsibly continue to maintain idle speed in the broiling airlessness, considering that my passenger on this afternoon's excursion was a 79-year-old retired fishing guide sitting in the Scrump's open cockpit? I glanced back at Mr. John. Intent on having a short, relatively comfortable, nostalgic boat ride to take the edge off a grave illness, he couldn't easily move or be moved from his deck chair into the shade and comparative coolness of the wheelhouse. And the duration of the trip back home, even if I did a 180 on the spot, was going to stretch considerably if I stuck to idle speed all the way. Did I want to expose an old man to a couple of hours of intense, slo-mo heat, when I could give him the short, breezy ride he said he wanted?

Life's personal dilemmas have a habit of mirroring larger issues. The fate of the manatee is a hot topic these days, and not just in the Sunshine State. National as well as regional magazines and newspapers are publishing scores of stories about the beleaguered sea cow. The subject of most of them's the same: Is the mammal really endangered and therefore worthy of current or even amplified protection efforts? Environmentalists, including the Sierra Club and the Humane Society, say yes. They're suing both the state of Florida and the federal government, asserting that neither entity is doing enough to protect a mammal that may be headed for extinction due to habitat destruction, propeller strikes, and other banes of 21st century existence. Recreational marine interests say no. They accuse environmentalists of using the manatee and related concerns as tools to broadly and arrogantly curtail coastal development in Florida and the increasing number of docks, boats, and marinas that go with it. Far from teetering on the brink of extinction, they contend, the manatee is actually growing in numbers, with 2,400 to 2,500 individuals in existence today, way more than the 600 that were on the books in 1967, when the manatee was first added to the endangered species list.

Next page > Manatee Madness continued > Page 1, 2

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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