I grab my cell phone and trek down the path to the water’s edge. The dense forest blocks any warmth from the morning sun. Although I’m dressed in the heaviest clothing I own, I still shiver in the forty-degree temperatures. What would inspire this thin-blooded Floridian to drive for an hour and brave such cold?
I reach the lookout platform and gaze into the crystal blue water. Fat gray shapes lie deep beneath the surface. I hear a snort as one rises for a breath of air. What appeared to be a boulder is actually a living thing. My eyes adjust as the swirling water becomes smooth again. Soon I recognize many similar shapes, and stare in unbelief as scores of manatees migrate into Blue Springs to escape the colder water of the nearby St John’s River. I realize I have something in common with these gentle giants. We both want to be warm.
Manatees cannot tolerate water temperatures below sixty-five. So they do what any tropical animal would do, seek warmth in order to live. How do these marine mammals know the water is a constant seventy-three degrees at Blue Springs? How do they communicate this news to each other? I’m amazed whenever I see God’s natural provision for this unique animal.
Over the past forty years the population of Florida manatees has rebounded. On March 30, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed their status from endangered to threatened. It is estimated that 6,620 manatees live throughout the coastal waters and rivers of Florida. In the 1970s only a few hundred existed.*
Florida organizations like the Save the Manatee Club have worked for decades to raise public awareness about the plight of the manatees. One might think the change of status is cause for celebration. Quite the opposite. According to club director, Patrick Rose, the federal government’s decision is premature and will undermine the manatee’s long- term survival.
As I take a closer look at those manatees swimming near the viewing platform, I can’t help but notice the scars on their skin from collisions with watercraft. These incidents happened while the animal was considered endangered and where speed limits for boaters were posted. What can we expect if protections are weakened?
The lives of these gentle giants hang in a delicate balance. A two thousand pound manatee has no natural predators. Alligators move out of their way by staying close to the riverbank. The only thing manatees need to fear is man. As Florida increases residential development, people and wildlife contend over limited natural resources. Man always has the last word.
As a crowd gathers on the viewing platform, one child excitedly points to a manatee mother swimming with her calf. I snap a photo of the pair and feel grateful for the individuals who continue to value the preservation of a species still so dependent on the protection of man. What will the future hold for the manatee? The answer is up to us.