Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

When Manatees Gather, Watch but Keep Your Distance

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

When Manatees Gather, Watch but Keep Your Distance

Article excerpt

Byline: DAN SCANLAN

The water was languid on a recent afternoon as Joy Lordahl and friend Josie Fisher exercised their dogs along the boardwalk at Walter Jones Historic Park.

They noticed people staring between moss-draped cypress trees at wet lumps in the shallow St. Johns River.

It was a pod of manatees, up to nine of the torpedo-shaped mammals cavorting in the shallows, probably males trying to get the attention of a breeding female.

But the magic of the moment July 13 was lost when a man from a nearby sailboat waded toward the pod, Lordahl said. The manatees didn't like the intrusion, and two started swimming his way.

"They circled, and when he stepped forward, then you saw this big one and little one coming dum-dum-dum-dum, like Jaws," she said. "[The intrusion by the man] made me so mad. They are so gentle, which is why it was such a surprise the way they acted."

Florida law doesn't like that kind of intrusion, either, said Quinton White, head of the Manatee Research Center at Jacksonville University.

"It's illegal to harass them in any way, so he was breaking the law. Had the marine patrol been on site, he could have been fined," White said. "Maybe he thought he was trying to break up a manatee fight, but I would question his judgment. ... They are massive, and a swipe of their fluke can cause damage."

Florida manatees swim the St. Johns River and its tributaries all year long. However, they are happier in warmer water, so more are seen in spring and summer, which is also their usual mating time.

The large marine mammal is protected under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. A recent Mandarin Sun story on manatee deaths was on Lordahl's mind as the photographer and local attorney walked along the boardwalk.

"I saw a manatee, and another person said, 'Look, there's a pod.' I thought this was incredible and magnificent," she said. …

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