Introduction to a Biologist’s Love Affair with Manatees

When you’ve spent as many hours as the author has observing manatees from 750 feet, they become like family. This begins a 5-part series on manatees as our waters warm and they return for the season. The parts will appear once a week, starting with this one.

By Lauri deGaris

In the 1990s I was working as a marine science research assistant at Jacksonville University (JU). JU had received a grant from the city of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Electric Authority to study the manatee population and habitat in Northeast Florida.

Aerial view of a manatee.

For several years, every two weeks I flew in a small plane over the St. Johns River and Intracoastal Waterway, observing manatees. I surveyed this region flying 750 feet above the surface of the water while gazing down looking for “brown potatoes” in the water. That is what a manatee looks like from an airplane at 750 feet.

I grew up wanting to be a marine biologist. I watched “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” every Sunday evening for years. I wrote to President Nixon asking him to do something about all the dolphins that were being killed while catching tuna in the 1970s. I remember my first trip to Marineland in Flagler Beach, just south of St. Augustine vividly; it was the first time I saw a live dolphin up close. In my early teens, I enrolled in marine science camp held in Mayport, at the mouth of the St. Johns River. And, my favorite song was and still is “Calypso” by John Denver. The song is about the joy of working on Calypso, the vessel used by Jacques Cousteau in his weekly TV series.

When I was 13 years old my father was transferred to Dallas, Texas. Coastal living was replaced by life in the concrete jungle. While in Dallas, I developed a love for art. I even went as far to enroll in art school after high school. However, after two semesters, my father was transferred back to Jacksonville, Florida. And, I dropped out of art school and returned to Florida with my family.

Back by the sea, my desire to become a marine scientist reignited. I enrolled in the marine science program at Jacksonville University and never looked back. Although I still love to create works of art, I also love to study the ocean and specifically marine mammals.

By the end of my experience working on the manatee grant at Jacksonville University, I had over a thousand hours of aerial surveillance experience under my belt. This experience led to future work with New England Aquarium. New England Aquarium sponsored aerial observation for right whales during calving season in this region. I can’t begin to tell you how many wonderful observations I witnessed flying 750 feet over the open ocean. This really was dream come true for me and the job of a lifetime.

One of the most unusual observations I made during my career as an aerial observer occurred in Nassau Sound, just south of Amelia Island. I was 750 feet above the surface of the water when I spotted a 10-12 foot hammerhead shark swimming with hundreds of other sharks. I had never seen so many sharks in one place in my life. The hammerhead shark was mingling around with all the other sharks in the sound.

Turns out, in the 1990s Nassau Sound was a gathering place for many species of sharks each spring. And, I can verify this, without a doubt. It is interesting to note that many times I flew over the coast and witnessed sharks swimming between people and land. If local swimmers knew how many sharks are in this region, I bet many would not go into water deeper than a foot.

I still enjoy swimming in the ocean and I venture in well past my knees. However, I do remember being a little timid about ocean swimming after watching the movie “Jaws” on the big screen back in the 1970s.

Those were the days … flying high above the ocean observing mother nature’s bounty. I will never forget the words of Captain Jacques Cousteau “to live on the land we must learn from the sea.” And, I can hear the words of John Denver singing, “Aye Calypso, the places you’ve been to the stories you tell, Aye Calypso I sing to your spirit, the men who have served you so long and so well.”

There is one other memorable experience I had from my days as an aerial observer I will never forget. Each time I got into the plane to perform a manatee aerial survey, our pilot Tom would state the same words as our wheels lifted off the runway, “and we are off like a prom dress.”

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Noble Member
24 days ago

It’s so sad that the commercial fishing industry in international waters are what are putting our oceans at risk today. While there are the occasional sport fishermen or boater who chooses to litter or not bring in their fishing gear, for the most part, those folks truly rely upon or want to enjoy the ocean for her beauty and bounty. Commercial fishing vessels do not and despite all of the « dolphin safe » markings and other consumer confidence type products that are pushed upon people by the grocery stores, the ONLY TRUE way to ensure you’re getting a product that hasn’t come from a vessel that has killed dolphins or finned sharks is to BUY LOCAL . We are fortunate in that we HAVE markets where we can do that. I urge you to do that. Do NOT trust the hype of the seal of approval because those companies that give said « seal » are bought and paid for by the big corporations that fund the fishing industry. Our oceans and the whales, dolphins, sharks and other animals that live in them that are necessary for their survival need us to stand up for them. China, Japan and other countries are NOT going to do it.

Mark Tomes
Active Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
24 days ago

Thanks for the observations about the history of our local waters, sharks, and manatees. Now that we’ve got the author’s personal history out of the way, I am looking forward to reading more about the natural history of our wonderful area. Thanks.

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