INDIAN RIVER LAGOON, Fla. — At first, the manatees stayed away from the romaine lettuce.
It was an extraordinary experiment in dire times: humans dumping pallets of leafy greens to feed beloved Florida manatees in the warm waters of the Indian River Lagoon, where decades of pollution have destroyed their delicate diet of seagrasses.
Finally, a pair of bold manatees approached. With their prehensile lips – they are distant relatives of the elephants – they grabbed the lettuce and nibbled on it. More followed. On the coldest days, hundreds arrived, and during the three-month feeding period, hungry mammals ate every bit of the 202,000 pounds of lettuce dropped from above.
Floridians cherish manatees, chubby, gentle giants that have long captured the human imagination, but people have failed to care about the animals’ environment, putting the survival of the species at risk. Now, while manatees are disappearing in large numbers, humans are trying crisis rescue measures in a desperate attempt to keep them alive.
It may not be enough. The iconic manatee is still in trouble, and with it, a part of Florida’s identity.
For more than a century, the state has had a contradictory relationship with nature. The Florida lifestyle is synonymous with outdoor activities, but also with sprawling development that has damaged the natural plumbing of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, threatened drinking water supplies and left the state severely vulnerable to climate change.
Manatees had been something of a success story, their status upgraded to threatened from endangered in 2017 after years of educating boaters to avoid deadly blows. Hunger has put them in danger again.
Along Florida’s Atlantic coast, the die-off began last year after the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile estuary that had been a seasonal haven for manatees, turned into an arid underwater desert. Decades of waste from leaking septic tanks and fertilizer runoff from farms and developments fueled algae blooms that blocked sunlight and smothered seagrass that manatees used to eat.
The feeding experiment, conceived and executed by federal and state wildlife officials and fueled by $116,000 in public donations, was a gamble. Between January 1 and April 1, the number of confirmed deaths dropped to 479, down from 612 in 2021. In 2020, that number was 205.
In all of last year, a record 1,100 Florida manatees were killed. Around 7,500 are believed to remain in the wild.
This year’s drop in deaths does not necessarily mean that hunger has subsided and that food has helped. Scientists will spend the summer reviewing environmental conditions, necropsy results and other data to make a more complete assessment, said Dr. Martine de Wit, a veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at its Laboratory of Pathobiology of Marine Mammals in St. Petersburg.
“It probably had to do with a later start to winter,” he said of the lower preliminary death toll. “And then we had a relatively short winter. So that may have helped some manatees.”
Floridians share a special affection for manatees. Endangered, manatees are “adopted” by people who make charitable donations to support their protection. “Save the Manatee” is one of the most popular specialty plates in the state. The houses exhibit manatee mailboxes.
Small towns like Orange City, home to Blue Spring State Park, hold manatee festivals that draw tourists to places that otherwise don’t get many visitors. The most famous is perhaps Crystal River on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where people can swim with manatees.
But neither love nor financial interest has stopped humans from posing a deadly threat, first from boat strikes, which have long killed manatees, and now from pollution, which has destroyed much of their supply. food.
Everyone agrees on the ideal long-term solution: restore lagoon habitat through a variety of efforts, from cultivating and planting new seagrass beds to improving stormwater drainage and moving properties in septic tanks to sewerage But all those projects are expensive and will take years. For critics, the feeding program was woefully insufficient: too late and too limited, both in the amount and type of feed provided to the animals.
The picture is not uniformly bleak. Some lucky manatees wintered 70 miles northeast of Indian River Lagoon. The animals had swum to the gorgeously hued Blue Spring, halfway between Orlando and Daytona Beach, where they could escape the cold water and be close to the lush foliage of the St. Johns River.
In January, during Orange City’s annual manatee festival, food trucks sold alligator sausage and soft-shell crabs. Artisans sold manatee-themed wall clocks and soap dishes. Linda Young of Casselberry wore a manatee hat to keep warm. “MANATEES ARE AWESOME,” her T-shirt read.
“Everyone in my life knows me as the manatee girl,” said Ms. Young, 45.
The next day in Blue Spring, Wayne Hartley, a cheerful 78-year-old manatee specialist with the Save the Manatee Club, set out to count the animals, as he has done since 1980. When he began, 36 manatees were wintering at the spring. . This year, the season high was 871, a record and a testament to how some conservation efforts have worked.
Mr. Hartley also hopes something else is going to happen: perhaps manatees that would normally seek refuge in Indian River Lagoon are trying to adapt to the loss of seagrass by traveling elsewhere.
“They go back to the East Coast and say, ‘This place is rotten, I’m going back to Blue Spring,’” he said.
Clutching a small notebook, he paddled his canoe along the clear waters of the spring. Every time he saw a manatee, he marked its presence with a black marker. He often greeted the sea cows by his name.
“Oh, it’s Precious. big female 140 Blue Spring,” he said, identifying her by her official number, which she knew by heart.
Some manatees played around their canoe, circling in a kind of dance. He keeps a notebook for each winter recording the census counts. He went through a phase of naming Harry Potter (“Weasley”) and, as a history student, another of English kings (“Egbert”).
With a momentary glance as he paddled, he identified the manatees by the unique scars on their backs and tails left by the blows of boat propellers.
“That’s Alice,” he said. “One of those where you wonder why she’s alive. Those scars on her side? Those are huge and very brutal.”
Park regulars visit on cool, foggy days, knowing that’s when most manatees seek the warmth of spring. Even on a Monday morning, a long line of cars snaked down the street to enter the park.
“Have you seen Annie or Moo Shoo?” a woman asked Mr. Hartley from one of the viewing platforms inside. (No, but he had seen Lucille.)
Floyd and Lenny? a man wanted to know. (Whiskers and Nick only.)
At Indian River Lagoon, the murky brown waters are far less hospitable. The barren bottom of the lagoon, now made up of little more than sand and horseshoe crabs, is a sobering sight.
“I remember when the water was crystal clear and you could see seagrass beds,” said Katrina Shadix, an environmental activist who fished in the lagoon decades ago. “This used to be the most amazing and beautiful estuary. The ecosystem has collapsed.”
Ms. Shadix and Wanda Jones, a marine biologist, rented a pontoon boat frequently during the winter to search for endangered manatees in the remote corners of the lagoon to report to the state’s rescue hotline. Rehabilitation facilities were in such high demand this year that they sent manatees as far away as Ohio to be nursed back to health. Volunteers to staff the rescue boats and lift the huge animals using trailers came from as far away as Alaska.
Ms. Shadix and Dr. Jones have urged state wildlife officials to take more drastic measures to save manatees, including trucking in hydrilla and water hyacinth, invasive aquatic plants that overgrow along along many Florida waterways, greatly expanding feeding efforts. (Federal law prohibits unauthorized persons from feeding manatees and other wild marine mammals.)
Officials counter that it would be logistically too difficult (the limited feeding trial was already a big task) and could introduce new unwanted organisms into the lagoon.
On one of his trips in early March, Dr. Jones steered the ship to a secluded cove on Merritt Island. “This is the manatee graveyard,” Shadix said.
Manatee carcasses had rotted there, dumped by officials in 2021 when the deaths became overwhelming. The air still smelled rotten. Bones (ribs, vertebrae, some teeth) covered in green algae remained visible through the shallow water.
This year, most of the carcasses went to landfills.
For Mr. Hartley in Blue Spring, the hardest days are when state wildlife officials call about a dead manatee and ask him to identify it. This year, that has happened once, in February. He identified the female as Tirma, Blue Spring 775. He hadn’t seen her since 2014.
In 2020, he recalled, he drove to a marina where a man with a tractor dragged a dead body. Mr. Hartley recognized him immediately. Amber. Ana’s daughter. Pregnant. Cause of death unknown.
“Amber was Amanda’s twin, and Amber was dumped,” she said. “So there was a long story.”
He cried after identifying her. Her voice caught again as she spoke of that day.
“Maybe it was too many times,” he said, “to go out and see them dead like that.”