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Manatees' survival relies on education

Boaters should be happy that fewer manatees died last year as a result of collisions with watercraft.

From a record high of 95 deaths in 2002, the number dropped to 69 in 2004, the lowest in five years.

State officials suspect the decrease could be because four hurricanes kept boaters off the water during peak manatee season. But there could be another reason: boater education is working.

When it comes to protecting manatees, there are two distinct approaches (please note the following is not based on scientific research but is the result of my observations during 15 years on the outdoors beat): post no-wake/slow speed zones in critical manatee areas, an approach often favored by the non-boating public, or educate boaters about the habits and life cycle of the West Indian manatee so the two may co-exist in harmony.

As a boater and steward of the environment, I accept that some no-wake/slow speed zones are necessary. But I know that a little knowledge goes a long way.

As outdoors editor, I have been fortunate to fish with some of Tampa Bay's best inshore guides. Seasoned veterans, such as Tampa's Dave Markett, can spot a manatee moving below the surface from 100 yards away.

On a fall fishing trip, Markett pointed out one of these sweet sirenians as we motored across the flats of Tierra Verde.

The manatee barely made a ripple, but Markett's trained eye was able to detect the slight movement, and he slowed long before a collision was possible.

That brief encounter made a big impression on me. I now am convinced that the more the public understands manatees, the fewer will die as a result of impact with watercraft.

With that in mind, I took one of my Future Boaters of America to Tampa Electric's Big Bend power plant for a lesson in Manatee 101. About 20 people gathered on a bright January morning to watch the sea cows that herded together in the warm water of the power plant's discharge canal.

Manatees, like humans, are warm-blooded. Though manatees may look like they are nothing but blubber, they do not have much body fat to keep them warm. That is why when bay waters drop below 68 degrees, the animals flock to warm-water sanctuaries such as the Big Bend power plant.

Standing on the observation deck, I pointed to the shadows below hoping my son would learn to spot a manatee in the wild. He played along for about 60 seconds, but then he insisted on leaving so he could see the manatee skull exhibit we passed on the way in.

Nonetheless, I stand by my earlier assertion that the key to manatee survival is education, not waterways filled with no-wake/slow speed zone signs.

Florida soon will have, if it doesn't already, 1-million boats. Hopefully, the vast majority of those operators will travel responsibly. Manatees will continue to die as the result of boat collisions, cold stress and natural phenomenas such as red tide.

But we can do our share by teaching the next generation how to operate watercraft responsibly. If we don't, boaters may join manatees on the endangered species list.

For more information on Tampa Electric's manatee viewing center, go to www.tampaelectric.com/teevmvcFront.cfm. It is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. through April 15.

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