By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Manatees have the reputation of being docile, slow-motion grazers that just ease along the warm waters of the Gulf Coast, hence the nickname “sea cow.” That might hold true most of the time, but when researchers attempt to apply a tag, the gentle giants act more like cornered bulls.

Until recently, most people along the northern Gulf Coast thought manatee sightings were the result of animals that had gone astray from their normal haunts in central and south Florida.

Thanks to the work of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) and Manatee Project Director Dr. Ruth Carmichael, those misconceptions are being revealed. A tagging program started in 2009 has yielded a great deal of evidence about the manatees that visit the northern Gulf Coast.

The most recent tagging effort happened recently under the combined efforts of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, DISL, the University of South Alabama, Sea to Shore Alliance, SeaWorld Orlando, University of Florida, Lucky Dog Aviation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Daphne, DISL volunteers and interns. The use of a spotter plane was donated by Shrimp Basket Restaurants.

Carmichael said the Manatee Project started in 2007, and the first tagging occurred in 2009. The data gathered since has proven the animals spotted around Mobile Bay and its estuaries came there with a purpose.

“At one time, people thought the sightings to the west of Florida were accidental,” Carmichael said. “I think the big take-home message, and the biggest fact we’ve discovered with our program, is that not only is it not accidental but that some are regular visitors. And we have some animals that come back year after year.”

Carmichael said there is one very large female that visits Mobile Bay on a regular basis. That animal has spent five of the past seven summers in Alabama. She said some animals that the project follows will go to Florida in the winter. As soon as the temperature warms up, they come back and stay in Alabama until it gets too cold.

“That raises the question of what’s home,” she said. “For some of these animals, is home where you go to spend the winter or where you spend the bulk of the rest of the year? The northern Gulf may be more of a home. At the least, we are part of their home range.

“The important thing a lot of people don’t realize is that we have fossil records of manatees in the northern Gulf. What I think is when populations declined that the population was so small there was no need or motivation to leave Florida. As recovery has been successful in Florida, I think we’re seeing range expansion, or more accurately range re-expansion. Now there are enough animals that it is worth their while to come back and re-occupy areas suitable to them. We’re not increasing habitat, so we’re trying to recover with static habitat resources. So they have to go somewhere, a lot to times to places they had previously occupied.”

Carmichael said the timing of the Manatee Project couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

“We could be looking at a substantial range re-expansion and re-occupation,” she said. “And I think we have, and probably by luck, captured the beginnings of the tipping point where we may see more animals come here and stay longer. And it may become very clear that not only is this part of their home range but our area will be increasingly occupied. But that remains to be seen. You can ask me again in a few years.”

In terms of numbers of manatees that can be found in Alabama waters at any time during warmer weather, Carmichael said that is hard to pinpoint.

“That’s a tough question,” she said. “There are certain things we can prove. And there are certain things we can guesstimate. We have certain sightings of groups of animals in one area. Then we have sightings of individuals.”

What makes it difficult, according to Carmichael, is some animals are coming to Mobile Bay to spend the summer, while others just spend some time in Mobile Bay on their way to other areas.

“During the peak of the season we maybe have at least two dozen animals in Alabama waters,” she said. “The number that pass through are likely many, many more than that.”

There have been four tagging events since 2009 with 13 animals captured. Twelve of those were tagged, although two of those animals were tagged twice.

During last week’s tagging effort, two younger males were netted and carefully hauled aboard Sea World’s specially equipped boat with a removable transom. Carmichael said one animal was estimated at 1,200 pounds, while the second was about 1,400 pounds. She said determining the age of a manatee is difficult once it passes a certain age.

“We can tell somewhat by how clean they are,” she said. “These animals were very clean with not a lot of scars or marks, which means they are probably younger.”

For someone observing their first manatee capture, it appeared to be a difficult task, especially when the animal’s paddle-shaped tail (fluke) came in contact with the researchers and interns attempting to load the animal in the boat. However, Carmichael said that was not unusual.

“Both captures went pretty smoothly,” she said. “It’s like catching a really big fish. Think of the biggest fish you ever caught (100-pound yellowfin tuna) and multiply that by 10. Sometimes it’s difficult to get them in the boat. The fact we were able to do it as quickly as we did is a testament to the skill of the folks involved in the capture. But every single event is different.”

Once the manatee was on board, the marine scientists and researchers went to work. Respiration was monitored to determine if the animal was in distress. Then a full health assessment followed with blood drawn and fecal material sampled as well as a skin sample from the edge of the fluke. The length and girth measurements were recorded as well as any identifying marks on the animal. A tag, similar to a crab float, was attached to the fluke.

“Thankfully, none of our animals had any problems,” Carmichael said. “Everything worked out well. They were released and swam away.”

Carmichael said the Sea Lab supplies manatee habitat area signs free of charge to all coastal residents in Alabama and Mississippi.

Because there are relatively few manatees in Alabama waters, no-wake manatee zones have not been established.

“What I believe in is education,” Carmichael said. “We believe in raising awareness, in letting people know these animals are here and when to expect to see manatees. We offer the free signage so people can put them up to make people aware that this is a habitat area; they can be cautious in case they do encounter an animal. I think we can do more with education than putting in restrictions.

“We’ve never had a mortality from a boat strike in Alabama.”

Mark Sasser, Coordinator of WFF’s Nongame Wildlife Program, said once it was determined there was a breeding population of manatees in Mobile Bay that WFF devoted a significant portion of its nongame budget to the manatee work.

“All states get a federal allocation each year for threatened and endangered species,” said Sasser, who manned one of the support boats during the tagging event, along with WFF Nongame Biologist Roger Clay. “The manatee is an endangered species that has a great deal of interest. This species has a lot of support from the general public. A lot of what we do hinges on public acceptance.

“Folks like manatees. It’s a lot easier to generate interest in manatees than in (Eastern) indigo snakes (another endangered species). Both are species worthy of recovery, but it’s hard to convince people that we need more snakes. This manatee project has garnered quite a bit of public support. You could tell by the number of volunteers and interns. Even the folks who lived in the area where the animals were captured showed a great deal of interest in what was going on with the manatees.”

Carmichael said the public interest was not that great when the Manatee Project started in 2007.

“We had an uphill battle in just getting people to report sightings,” she said. “One of my goals is to be out explaining to people what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and why we care about these animals.

“Everybody who reports seeing one of these animals is part of our program, part of our network. We couldn’t do it without people on the water who report the sightings and give us information.”

Anyone who spots a manatee, please report the sighting 24-7 toll free at 1-866-493-5803, online at manatee.disl.org or via email to manatee@disl.org. A Facebook page is located at https://www.facebook.com/mobilemanatees.

PHOTOS: (By Billy Pope) Manatee Project participants were able to locate a pair of male manatees in the Dog River area near Mobile Bay recently. The specially designed capture boat from Sea World with a removable transom was used to bring the 1,200-pound animal onboard to be measured and go through a series of health checks. The animals were fitted with a tag collar that fits just ahead of the fluke with a float and a radio transmitter.

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