The first time I encountered the Mayor of Margaritaville, he was playing a concert at my college back around the Cretaceous Period. Despite the passage of so much time, I will never forget the experience.
What made it so memorable was not Jimmy Buffett’s laid-back musical stylings, or the dazzling craftsmanship of his Coral Reefer Band. No, what I remember the most about that concert is hearing one of my classmates singing along very enthusiastically with what she thought was a song titled, “Why Don’t We Get Drunk At School.”
Buffett died this month at 76. He was widely mourned as Florida’s troubadour laureate by both the Parrot Head faithful and more casual fans who grew up hearing his music as the soundtrack of their lives.
The obituaries cited his hits, such as “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” They also talked about how a flat-broke folkie who’d once played for tips in Key West had parlayed his songwriting talent and savvy into a showbiz empire worth $1 billion, involving everything from books to beer to beach resorts.
What hardly any of them mentioned, though, is his impact on one particular Florida environmental issue.
This dates to his 1981 album “Coconut Telegraph.” There’s a song on that album called “Growing Older but Not Up.” The lyrics mention feeling like an old manatee heading south as the weather grows colder.
“He tries to steer clear of the humdrum so near,” Buffett warbles. “It cuts prop scars deep in his shoulder.”
A month after the album hit stores, Buffett played a concert in Tallahassee, and that song was on the playlist.
After the concert, he was chatting backstage about that song with a new fan. They both agreed that manatees needed help. The singer offered to spearhead a new organization to help protect them.
And that’s how the Save the Manatee Club was born, with Buffett as its co-chair.
What we all like about Florida
Some celebrities seem to adopt a new crusade every month — the rainforest for January, whales for February and so on. They commit to causes the way they commit to matrimony.
He retained the post of Save the Manatee Club co-chair right up until the moment he expired, a span of 42 years.
And it wasn’t a ceremonial position either. Buffett actually did things to help manatees.
Buffett first encountered manatees when one swam near his boat and he thought, “Whoa! What was that?” Over time, he came to regard them as a symbol for the best of this state he’d adopted as both his home and muse.
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“To me, the manatee represents what we all like about Florida — kind of cruising in warm, clear water and not bothering anybody,” he said once.
He’d seen several that bore scars. Ever since Ole Evinrude invented the outboard motor in 1907, boats had been colliding with manatees and leaving deep gashes.
By 1949, so many had been hit that an Everglades National Park biologist named Joe Moore discovered he could use their scar patterns as a way to tell individual manatees apart. Scientists now use a computerized version of Moore’s scar catalogue to track manatees.
Buffett’s concern about the damage being done to the manatees is evident in his song. And when he performed it at the February 1981 concert in Tallahassee, that line caught the attention of one particular concertgoer — the most powerful politician in Florida.
‘I want to be involved’
Bob Graham had been governor for two years. A Harvard Law grad, he’s the son of a former state senator who developed the community of Miami Lakes.
Running for governor, he’d focused on the issues of education and the death penalty — not the environment. But he’d just gotten slapped upside the head by evidence of the importance of that issue.
The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was the magazine’s most popular seller each year. The cover of the 1981 iteration featured a bikini-clad Christie Brinkley posing on Captiva Island. Inside, there was a different kind of bombshell: a lengthy piece about how Florida seemed to be doing its darnedest to kill off the natural attributes that made it special.
“The sad fact is that Florida is going down the tube,” the magazine warned. “Indeed, in no state is the environment being wrecked faster and on a larger scale.”
That magazine story had just hit newsstands when Graham’s daughter Suzanne asked her dad to take her to the Jimmy Buffett concert. Graham, never the hippest guy in the room, asked, “Who’s Jimmy Buffett?”
Graham found himself enjoying the concert, and then took his daughter backstage to meet the star. (One of the perks of being the chief executive is that you get a backstage pass.) That’s how he wound up chatting with Buffett.
When I interviewed Graham and his aides for my book “Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Endangered Species,” I asked if, when he met Buffett, Graham was thinking about how to counter that Sports Illustrated story. They all denied it. But I think it’s fair to say that the decline of Florida’s environment was on his radar when Buffett mentioned helping manatees.
“I volunteered my services to be involved at that point in an awareness campaign of the plight of the manatee in Florida,” Buffett testified in a lawsuit some years afterward. “And I made the governor aware of my intentions and offering of my services.”
Buffett spelled out that he wanted to do more than be a big-name cause endorser.
“I don’t want to just be a token celebrity,” he said. “I want to be involved.”
Graham suggested forming some sort of manatee awareness committee. And he said later, “it took about three milliseconds to decide he should be the chairman of this new effort.”
Buffett didn’t think Graham was taking him seriously. But after the concert, one of Graham’s aides, a man named Ron Book, arranged a meeting with Buffett. He was under orders from Graham: Hash out with Buffett how he’d like to organize this manatee campaign.
“A lot of people have forgotten how a lot of the progress we’ve made on manatee protection was due to him,” Book, now a lobbyist and the father of Sen. Lauren Book, told me this month. “I give Jimmy all the credit.”
‘A totally dingbat response’
For their meeting, Book brought along a manatee expert, a biologist named Patrick Rose, to provide some scientific expertise.
Rose recalls they met in the lobby of Palm Beach’s fanciest hotel, The Breakers. He said the singer brought along a woman named Sunshine Smith who struck him as being “free-spirited.” She also had sharp business instincts. Smith became the original proprietor of Buffett’s Margaritaville store in Key West and Buffett’s manager.
Buffett agreed to cut a series of public service announcements asking boaters to watch out for manatees, play a benefit concert, maybe sell T-shirts with those lines about a manatee with scars.
Then Buffett suggested something more substantive. He proposed they post manatee warning signs at boat ramps, dive shops, and marinas (and later donated $35,000 to start the postings).
“He was never just a spokesman,” Rose told me.
About a month after their backstage meetup, Graham publicly announced he was forming a Save the Manatee Committee and appointing Buffett as chair.
“You can’t but help like a manatee,” Buffett said during the March 1981 press conference. “And their only predators are people who aren’t aware of the problem.”
Graham expected “a total love-in” at his announcement. Then a reporter threw him a curve. How could the governor square his law-and-order political stance with Buffett’s songs about drug use?
Graham, caught unprepared, made up an answer. Rather than glorifying drugs, he said, Buffett’s songs “point out the problems, the distress, the human tragedy of the use of drugs.” (Fortunately for Graham, no one brought up the weed-tastic name of Buffett’s band.)
Graham admitted later that that was “a totally dingbat response.” But it guaranteed he wouldn’t be asked anything more on that topic.
The manatee effort proved to be the start of a long friendship between the singer and the future U.S. senator who became known for his environmental advocacy. At a subsequent Capital Press Skits performance, Graham showed up dressed as Buffett. He was then joined onstage by Buffett, wearing Graham’s trademark suit with a tie decorated with silhouettes of Florida.
Buffett turned out to be a creative thinker about the Save the Manatee Club. According to Rose, Buffett was the one who came up with the organization’s most effective fundraising program, dubbed “Adopt-A-Manatee.”
When you adopt a manatee, you do not, of course, receive custody of an actual manatee. Instead, for a modest amount — $15 at first, now $25 — adopters receive a personalized certificate and a biography of the manatee chosen, as well as regular updates.
Within a week of Buffett announcing the adoption program in 1983, more than 1,000 people had signed up. Because of Buffett’s involvement, “Readers’ Digest” ran a story that sparked national interest in the manatee adoption program.
This did more than merely raise money for what eventually became the independent, non-profit organization Buffett had hoped for.
Those adopters felt invested in the fate of their individual manatee. School children in Arizona, your maiden aunt in Minnesota, some fan of marine life stranded in landlocked Wyoming — they all were now rooting for their manatee to make it.
When the Legislature approved selling a “Save the Manatee” license plate to raise money for manatee research, Buffett was awarded his own personalized plate. In a classic case of Florida at work, though, the plate he was given misspelled his last name, implying the state was now serving a manatee “buffet.”
The leaping governor
Not all of Buffett’s duties to help manatees were pleasant ones.
By 1999, the Save the Manatee Club’s directors had decided to sue both the state and federal government over their failure to protect manatees under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Fine, Buffett said when he was told. But first, he wanted to warn Florida’s new governor, Jeb Bush, about what was going to happen.
Rose — by now executive director of the Save the Manatee Club — scheduled a meeting with Bush for himself and Buffett. An aide assured Rose that Bush would be fully briefed on their purpose before they arrived.
The first few minutes went well, Rose said, right up to the point where they mentioned the word “lawsuit.”
“Lawsuit?!” Bush shouted, leaping to his feet.
“I could see everything just drain out of him,” Rose said. “He had not been briefed.”
The pair fumbled through the rest of the meeting with the clearly steamed Bush. Afterward, during a news conference outside the governor’s office, Buffett said Bush displayed “a great sense of humor.”
Rather than talk about the leaping governor, Buffett took a more diplomatic approach, mentioning that “there’s a great opportunity for cooperation.”
The “cooperation” didn’t last. A coalition of environmental groups led by the Save the Manatee Club filed the two suits less than a year later. Both the state and federal government settled out of court, agreeing to new measures to protect manatees that sparked a widespread revival of the population.
Buffett’s next bit of celebrity diplomacy involved another backstage meeting.
Florida in his heart
For more than six years, waterfront developers and boating interests had worked together to convince the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that manatees were doing great. Now, in 2007, they were about to get their wish.
Despite the fact that the 2006 had proven to be the deadliest year ever for manatees, they said manatees no longer needed the protection provided by being classified as “endangered.” It was time to take them off the endangered list and repeal some of the protections that hurt their business.
Buffett was slated to play a concert in Tampa right before the wildlife commission vote. He invited then-Gov. Charlie Crist to introduce him to the 20,000 rowdy concertgoers.
The contrast was dramatic: Buffett in T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, shaking hands with Crist in a white shirt, dark pants and shoes as shiny as the chrome on a new car. But Crist praised Buffett for being just like him.
“He has Florida in his heart and he loves her like I do,” Crist told the cheering crowd.
What the crowd didn’t see was that for 10 minutes backstage, Buffett had talked to Crist about what was wrong with the wildlife commission move.
After talking to Buffett, Crist called up the wildlife commissioners and told them to back off because “it would put this creature in jeopardy.” They didn’t vote it down, just postponed a decision indefinitely, much to the chagrin of the developer and boater lobbyists.
With Buffett gone, who can possibly do that sort of thing now?
I asked Rose, who is now 72, if the Save the Manatee Club is trying to line up another Florida-based singer, actor, or sports star to fill Buffett’s flip-flops. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? Ariana Grande? Serena Williams?
He didn’t really have an answer for me.
“We’re going to stay strong and carry on,” was all he could say.
Listen, manatees need all the friends they can get these days. There’s been a massive die-off thanks to pollution-fueled algae blooms wiping out seagrass beds. Meanwhile boat collisions continue to claim lives and leave scars. According to the Miami Herald, 72 manatee deaths so far in 2023 were linked to watercraft.
Finding another Buffett will be difficult. But maybe every time we hear one of his songs, we should think about what we could do for manatees, from slowing down our boats to cutting our use of lawn fertilizer to buying a manatee license plate.
That would be a more constructive way to honor his memory than drinking a margarita, eating a cheeseburger, or getting drunk ... at school.
Craig Pittman is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller “Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country,” which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. This essay originally appeared in the Florida Phoenix.
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