Fury Over a Gentle Giant

Floridians raise a ruckus over manatees as biologists weigh prospects for the endangered species' survival

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The keeper of the mugbooks is Cathy Beck, a wildlife biologist who seems almost painfully earnest until you notice the poster on her office wall of an unscathed manatee asking, “What, me worry?’’ Clicking through her computer database, Beck calls up photos of notable specimens, including Popeye, a manatee sighted in CrystalRiver with a slash so deep on its side that its muscles are exposed; Phalanges, whose shredded tail resembles waving fingers; and Whatamess, named for the crosshatched wounds on its back. “I’ve seen animals that you just can’t even believe are still alive,’’ says Beck.


When a dead manatee’s carcass is retrieved, it is hauled to the state’s Marine Mammal Pathology Laboratory, in St. Petersburg, where biologists photograph it and send the image to the photo database for possible identification. They also conduct a necropsy to determine the cause of death. In 2002, the staff examined a record 305 dead manatees, 95 of which had been killed in boat collisions—also a record number.


Most of the earliest pictures in the state’s extraordinary manatee photo collection are black-and-white snapshots taken in the 1960s by James “Buddy’’ Powell, then a wiry teenager who loved nothing better than spending all day aboard his Boston Whaler exploring the hidden coves and quiet springs of gin-clear Crystal River.


One day in 1967, when Buddy was 13, he spotted a longhaired man sitting quietly in a Sears johnboat and staring down into the water. “He wasn’t fishing,’’ Powell recalls. “He wasn’t diving. He was clearly out of place.” Powell asked the mystery boater if he needed help. “No,’’ said the man, Daniel “Woodie’’ Hartman, who was just beginning what would turn out to be a seminal study of the manatee, then a poorly understood species. Hartman, a Maine native, was a CornellUniversity graduate student. The first time he jumped into the Crystal River for a closer look at his chosen subject, he landed amid a herd of otherwise gentle males aggressively pursuing a female. He climbed back in his boat. “I agonized over how I was going to study them if I was too scared to get in the water with them,’’ says Hartman, now retired and living near Jackman, Maine. “Finally, I got back in the water.’’ Powell became Hartman’s assistant, and using a secondhand underwater camera they started photographing manatees and studying the mammals up close. More than once, Powell says, a friendly female manatee would grasp his mask and give him a whiskery buss. A story by Hartman for National Geographic on “mermaids in peril” attracted the attention of French filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau, whose 1972 television documentary on manatees heightened concern for the animal.


Much of the current controversy can be traced to Hartman’s first statewide aerial manatee census, in the summer of 1972. Flying around in a Piper Cub, Hartman and Powell, by then a college student, added up the manatees they saw and tried to account for the ones they couldn’t see because of murky water or poor weather. The pair calculated there must be some 600 to 800 manatees in Florida—a number sometimes still cited by manatee-protection advocates, despite the researchers’ own misgivings. The data were “full of errors,’’ says Powell, who earned a doctorate in zoology at the University of Cambridge in England and is now director of aquatic conservation at the Wildlife Trust, a research and conservation organization with an office in Sarasota, Florida.



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