Friday, March 1, 2013

Kayaking with the Manatee

Tim and woman from Florida Wildlife Commission
saving a manatee from effects of red tide -
rescue pictures from Manatee Guides' Facebook page
You might think that I meant to say "manatees" in the heading, but, sadly, the singular is actually more accurate.  My friend Wendi's visit from New York was capped off with a kayak trip at Manatee Park in Fort Myers with Manatee Guides.  When we arrived at the launch site, we mentioned to Tim (one of our guides) that the Park's website said no manatees were seen in the Park the prior day.  Tim immediately began telling us about the impact that red tide is having on the manatees. This season, over 100 of the mammals in our area have succumbed to its effects.  Manatees can become infected with red tide in one of two ways:  inhaling it when they raise their snouts to get air or ingesting it when they eat sea grass.  (Manatees eat 10-15% of their body weight in sea grass each day, which translates into at least 100 lbs. of potentially dangerous substances daily.)  Once red tide gets into a manatee's digestive system, it takes about six hours for the animal to begin suffering from seizures (manifested through facial tics) and paralysis.  In order to survive, the manatee needs to get to a place where it can lie with its snout out of the water. If it is not able to do so, it drowns.  Manatees can hold their breath for approximately 20 minutes, so this is the window of time available to rescue the animal once the neuro toxins in red tide have taken effect.

Tim has helped rescue two dying manatees in the last week, and he told us about his experiences.  The manatees become infected with red tide when they are out in the Gulf.  The animals often spend time in the Orange River (on which Manatee Park is located), and this is where the rescues have occurred.  On one occasion, he found a manatee that was not moving.  He thought he had arrived too late.  He called the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC), and they told him to feel the manatee's vibrissae (more or less its whiskers that are attached to nerve endings).  When he did, the animal twitched, and he realized it was still alive.  He then held the manatee's head out of the water using life jackets as a pillow until FWC arrived.

Once FWC is on site, the first task is to get the manatee into a sling for transport.  (I am not sure how this is done, but it can't be easy when you're dealing with a 1000+ lb. animal.)  Once in the sling, the manatee is moved out to the River, where the sling is hooked up to a boat that moves the manatee to the boat launch area.  From there the animal is moved into a truck and transported to a facility to recover, most likely Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa or SeaWorld in Orlando.

It was a sobering way to start off our kayak adventure, but it was interesting to learn more about the impact that red tide is having on our environment.  It's not only tourism that's being affected.  Dorrit and Lindy joined us on the kayak trip and rounded out their day with a visit to Peace River Wildlife Center back in Punta Gorda.  There they heard another red tide story--this time about a pelican that was found in a paralytic state staggering around like a drunken sailor with its eyes rolled back into its head.  The pelican was taken to PRWC and diagnosed as suffering the effects of red tide as a result of eating too many fish infected with the toxin.  The pelican was immediately put on an IV treatment and is doing well.

Wendi and me in action
With this backdrop, I almost feel guilty saying that we had lots of fun on our kayak outing.  We did end up seeing a couple of manatees, one of which surfaced near Wendi's and my kayak at the end of the trip.  Wendi exclaimed, "We saw its snout!" with an amount of glee that is usually reserved for children on Christmas morning.

Lindy, Mike, Dorrit, me, and Wendi 
Throughout the tour, Tim and Mike (our second guide) shared their extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna along the river.  We learned little tidbits like the fact that palm trees are plants rather than trees and got a refresher course on symbiotic relationships while learning about air plants. We also got a nice Academy Award tie-in when Tim told us that The Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed on the Orange River.  On our way back home, Tim and Mike serenaded us (using the term quite loosely!) with songs whose words have been changed to work the manatee theme.   I wish that I could remember the lyrics as they were quite funny and clever.  I do recall the beginning of their version of Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville," which was "Living on Groupons...."  (Since we had arrived with our Groupon coupons in hand, I connected with this one!)  All in all, it was a fun--and educational--morning on the water, and a great final outing for Wendi's 2013 visit.  I'm already plotting for next year.

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