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  1. Life & Culture

Florida’s ‘Manatee Lady,’ Helen Spivey, died at 94

She spent decades fighting for animals and the environment.
The fight to save Florida's manatees left a deep impression on Helen Spivey, who was pictured looking out of the back window of her Crystal River home in 2003. From her not-so-humble beginnings to the environmental lessons taught to her by her dad, Helen was to be a force to be reckoned with not just in Citrus County, where developers have despised her for decades, but in the state and even on the federal level due to her work with Save the Manatee
The fight to save Florida's manatees left a deep impression on Helen Spivey, who was pictured looking out of the back window of her Crystal River home in 2003. From her not-so-humble beginnings to the environmental lessons taught to her by her dad, Helen was to be a force to be reckoned with not just in Citrus County, where developers have despised her for decades, but in the state and even on the federal level due to her work with Save the Manatee [ Times (2003) ]
Published Apr. 30

In the winter of 1986, Helen Spivey wrote a lengthy letter to the editor of this publication, which referred to an editorial noting she didn’t contain “an iota of political savvy.”

They were correct, she wrote.

“I got into office because I am sick and tired of daily looking at the filth, slime and scum of what the Crystal River is becoming.”

Eight years later, the then-St. Petersburg Times endorsed Spivey for state representative.

“For those voters who may be inclined to follow a path less traveled, we recommend Helen Spivey, a Crystal River resident who is a self-made expert on water and land-use matters. Spivey has blazed a trail on a host of environmental and social causes, from manatees to land preservation to literacy training. Also a Florida native, Spivey has a scrappy independence that contrasts with (Republican opponent Richard) Fitzpatrick’s polished image. There is a legion of Spike Fitzpatrick’s roaming the halls of the State house. But you would be lucky to find just one Helen Spivey.”

She was our “aggressive conscience,” said her friend, Save the Manatee Club board member and public interest attorney Dan Hendrickson.

She was “humble and persistent and fierce all at the same time,” said Save the Manatee CEO Pat Rose.

She was “at heart an artist,” said longtime environmental journalist Craig Pittman. “She was not someone you think of as an activist, but she felt compelled by things that she cared about to throw herself into the fray anyway.”

Spivey, who was known as “the Manatee Lady.” She died April 20 at 94.

Helen Spivey poses with some of the dead weeds and gunk she pulled out of the water in front of her home on Crystal River in 1984.
Helen Spivey poses with some of the dead weeds and gunk she pulled out of the water in front of her home on Crystal River in 1984. [ TIMES (1984) | St. Petersburg Times ]

In search of Florida

Spivey and her husband, William “Bear” Spivey,” spent five years looking for “something that looked like the Florida I remember,” she told the Times in 2003.

In 1970, they found it on Crystal River, where they built their family home. And then they found what was in the water.

“That discovery began a 10-year battle to convince the city to find another way to dispose of wastewater,” Barbara Behrendt of the Times reported in 2003. “She carted a huge glass jar of sludge with her to council meetings and other events to demonstrate her disgust with the effluent disposal. Eventually the city converted to a spray-irrigation method of wastewater disposal.”

In his book, Manatee Insanity, Pittman writes that after Spivey saw a sign requesting people report manatee sightings, “she started keeping an eye out for the manatees. Their odd looks and aquatic grace captured her interest.”

Pictured here in 1994 while holding onto her only campaign sign, Helen Spivey begins to realize she has won her race for State House near midnight Tuesday. The race for House District 43 was extremely close between her and Republican Gene Keith, with the lead alternating all evening. She won with about 500 votes out of more than 40,000 cast.
Pictured here in 1994 while holding onto her only campaign sign, Helen Spivey begins to realize she has won her race for State House near midnight Tuesday. The race for House District 43 was extremely close between her and Republican Gene Keith, with the lead alternating all evening. She won with about 500 votes out of more than 40,000 cast. [ TIMES (1994) | St. Petersburg Times ]

Make it better

Spivey fought developers, boaters and politicians to protect the manatee herds that come to Crystal River each winter. She spent eight years on Crystal River’s City Council, one term in the Florida House of Representatives, several more lobbying for manatees and decades working with Save the Manatee Club, which she co-chaired along with Jimmy Buffet.

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“Helen worked to stop the pumping of treated sewage into Kings Bay in Crystal River,” the group reported in a remembrance, “and she was instrumental in helping to protect Three Sisters Springs, a 57-acre property that is now part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s west coast.”

Spivey was a fierce defender for gentle creatures.

And if she disagreed with you, you’d hear about it.

Years ago, she grew upset with Rose about an environmental issue. The two sat down and talked it out. And, presented with new information, Spivey changed her mind. She was fierce, but also open, Rose said.

“She really had people’s respect,” he said. “They had to love her whether they agreed with her or not.”

Helen Spivey is shown in her Crystal River home in 1998. She painted the self-portrait on the wall behind her in 1982.
Helen Spivey is shown in her Crystal River home in 1998. She painted the self-portrait on the wall behind her in 1982. [ TIMES (1998) | St. Petersburg Times ]

A difference

Spivey loved cats and dogs and books. Her small home on Crystal River was more of a library, said Hendrickson, with a rolling ladder.

Her conservation work earned her many awards, including from the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy. In 2011, her work was recognized on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Manatee Lady didn’t work to collect accolades, though.

“I guess I wouldn’t want people to remember me,” she said in 2003. “But I would really be pleased if they could see an ecosystem that functions and a world that is not asphalt and concrete.”

Laura Bevan, left, director of the Humane Society of the United States' Southeast Regional Office, and Helen Spivey co-chairwoman of the Save The Manatee Club (second from left) laughed as they helped to inflate a giant manatee balloon at Crystal River Primary School in Crystal River in January of 2007.
Laura Bevan, left, director of the Humane Society of the United States' Southeast Regional Office, and Helen Spivey co-chairwoman of the Save The Manatee Club (second from left) laughed as they helped to inflate a giant manatee balloon at Crystal River Primary School in Crystal River in January of 2007. [ TIMES (2006) | St. Petersburg Times ]

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Read other Epilogues:

Odessa woman who fought in Tampa Bay’s water wars dies at 78

He devoted his life to understanding Florida’s coral reefs

Willie Robinson Jr. spent much of his life hoping to save an essential piece of Tampa history

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