By Stephanie Hayes, Tampa Bay Times columnist
The portly pals were visible with squinting and patience. Their spatula tails flipped out of the canal, and they put their snoots to the surface and blew bubble rings.
“Oh!” said 9-year-old Charlie Breitengross. “Mom, they’re really close!”
It was opening day at Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center, and Charlie was visiting from Wisconsin with his mom, Nicole. The free attraction at the Apollo Beach Big Bend Power Station was closed for the pandemic last year. Monday, it was bursting with kids in strollers, couples holding hands and hardhat workers trying to glimpse the buoyant celebs.
Charlie explained why he, specifically, likes manatees.
“They’re cute! They look like seals!”
Yes, Charlie, incredibly accurate. Manatees are roly-polies, baked potatoes, Lumpy McLumpersons, silly gray friends of the sea. They’re so much more, too. And they’re in trouble.
Manatees snowbird at power plants for warmth, because they die in water temps below 68 degrees. What did they do before power plants, you ask? Great question. They sought out warm springs, marshes and rivers. Why don’t they go there as much now? Another great question. Humans have blocked, drained or built around them.
Manatees are dying in record numbers, approaching 1,000 this year. The last high was 830 in 2013. It’s a crisis for these animals, who were reclassified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from endangered to threatened in 2017 under political pressure, despite objections from the scientific community.
We’ve heard cautionary tales of speeding boats, seen grisly propeller lacerations on manatee backs. Boaters still kill them in high numbers, but that’s not the only cause. The seagrasses manatees eat have been destroyed by development and pollution.
Manatees are starving to death.
And you should care.
Of course, they’re sweet and mesmerizing. They are too big to be prey and too docile to be predators. They munch on lettuce at zoos and literally can’t turn their heads. Did you know that? They don’t have the necessary vertebrae, so they must flip their burrito bodies. They make satisfying gift shop stuffed animals.
They also are a crucial part of Florida’s ecosystem. They are natural lawn mowers, keeping seagrass short and healthy, which keeps waterways open. They eat so much! They eat five hours a day! Then they go to their underwater bathrooms and release nutrients, fertilizing plant life. When manatees are in trouble, so is everything.
Lawmakers on both sides have proposed moving manatees back to endangered status, which would unlock protections. Easing them off power plants involves time and funding to clean waterways and restore habitats. Florida approved $8 million for manatees this year, twice the typical amount. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is asking for $7 million more.
More manatees will fill in around the power station as the weather gets colder, snuggling up against each other and man-made vapor stacks. Enjoy watching them. Stick your head in the manatee standees for a photo. It’s a fun place to visit.
Then step back and look around.
People come to Florida seeking paradise, captivating plants and animals, dazzling sunsets, restoration of souls. With every new condo complex, toxic runoff, speeding watercraft blaring the “Applebee’s on a date night song,” we chip away at that dream.
We ruin it, ironically, with power. Our gentle giants deserve the power back.
Stephanie Hayes is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.