The Manatee’s Hug
April 28, 2015
When it comes to wildlife, what is the proper balance between conservation and observation or interaction?
by Ellen Prager, PhD, marine scientist and author
Earlier this year I went snorkeling with manatees in Crystal River, FL. Before going out on a boat to where the manatees congregate near warm water springs, we were given a briefing about how to properly observe the manatees and what not to do. The what-not-to-do was emphasized by video footage of people behaving badly. Snorkelers were shown stepping on, kicking, chasing, and all around harassing the manatees. It was simply horrifying and could lead one to believe that all interaction with the manatees in Crystal River should be strictly forbidden.
We, a small group of wetsuit-clad visitors, then went on a short boat ride to the snorkeling area. Once on-site and as we climbed carefully into the water, one manatee curiously approached the boat. To reduce the chance that someone will kick or chase a manatee we were not allowed to wear fins. The area right around the actual spring was roped off to give the manatees a completely human-free zone. We floated slowly into the permitted snorkeling area looking for manatees. Soon I spotted one and carefully moved closer. The manatee seemed to notice me and then went back to the business of being a manatee. With the girth of an overinflated barrel, covered with wrinkly gray skin, and having a muzzle bristling with brush-like whiskers along with small button-shaped eyes, manatees appear surprisingly cuddly. Though of course I resisted the strong urge to touch the animal.
I waved a young boy over to show him the manatee. He was floating nearby with his mother. The boy’s eyes just about popped out of his head and he screamed in delight, shouting, “MANATEE”! I suspect it is a moment he will remember the rest of his life.
A little while later I came upon a few people laughing because one of the young manatees had actually grabbed a man. Soon thereafter I became the focus of the manatee’s attention. I was careful not to crowd or touch it, but then the most amazing thing happened. The manatee put its snout against my chest, rolled onto its side, and grabbed me. Not a slight touch or passing brush of a flipper, but an all out tight yet gentle hug. I laughed so hard I spit out my snorkel. After releasing me, the manatee put its flipper under my arm as if wanting to swim arm-in-arm.
I’ve been a marine scientist for more than two decades and have been in the water with many sea creatures. The manatee hug however has to be one of my top five in-the-water moments. If I liked manatees before, now I am obsessed with them.
Recently, a campaign was started to close Crystal River to snorkelers suggesting that harm was being done to the manatees. Unquestionably, manatees need to be protected from people behaving badly and zones need to be in place, as they are, where manatees can go if they do not want to interact with people. But by allowing people to swim beside a manatee and if they are lucky, get hugged by one, we build exactly the type of stewardship ethic that is needed to not only protect manatee populations, but also the habitats they need to survive.
Furthermore, by allowing eco-friendly and well-controlled tours in Crystal River we provide the incentive for local business owners, residents, and policymakers to support protection for the manatees and their waterways. Some people may want to protect marine life out of an ethical responsibility, but let’s get real. For many people an economic incentive simply has more influence.
This brings me to the Galapagos Islands, where I go regularly as the science advisor and consultant to Celebrity’s small cruise ship in the region. People often ask if tourism in the Galapagos will be halted because they’ve heard it is destroying the islands and their unique fauna.
The number of tourist ships in the Galapagos is strictly regulated and a permit is required even for private vessels entering the Islands. To visit a site in the Galapagos National Park, whether hiking, boating, or snorkeling, visitors must be accompanied by a licensed Galapagos National Park naturalist. Visitors are only allowed at very specific designated sites and hikers must stay on well-marked trails. It is extremely well controlled and as such, beyond the few trails the landscape remains wild. The animals in the Galapagos show little fear of humans and will even perform courtship rituals or raise young very close to the trails. Should the Galapagos Islands be closed to tourism? What incentive would political leaders in Ecuador or the Galapagos then have to preserve these unique and wondrous islands? Is that a cynical perspective? Maybe, but I believe it is the practical reality of the human nature.
I am committed to doing what I can to engage people of all ages in learning about nature, marine life, the ocean, and to help build a life-long stewardship ethic. I am also a realist. We must find a balance between conservation and interaction or viewing so that people feel a connection to the natural world and animals, and want to protect them. One hug from a manatee and I am convinced any person will become a passionate protector for life!
Ellen Prager is a freelance writer, consultant, and Safina Center Fellow. Her newest book, The Shark Rider, is the second book in a fiction series for middle graders that combines action-packed adventure and humor with ocean science and lots of sea creatures. The Shark Rider will be released on May 1 and is available for pre-order.
(Featured image (top): Manatee resting at Three Sisters Springs (Crystal River NWR) while shading over a school of mangrove snappers. © Keith Ramos.)