Sunday, May 20, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Mary Alice Powell

Making friends with manatees at Florida park



ORANGE CITY, Fla. Phillip, Elaine, Cleburne, and Brutis may all look alike to visitors to Blue Spring State Park here, but to Walter Hartley they are individuals.

He points into the green water with a bluish tinge and identifies the great glob of dark gray in the water moving as a slow submarine as Peaches, and he seems genuinely happy to see him. Peaches, he later explains, is a male. He knows it s him because of the scar on his tail.

Mr. Hartley is a park service specialist with the Department of Environmental Protection Florida Park Service, and the underwater creatures he names and keeps track of are manatees.

The visit to the park to watch the manatees was more than a first-time view of the giant mammals. It was a travel lesson.

This was my third visit to Orange City to visit relatives. Not once had they mentioned that their city is famous for the manatees. In fact, they had never been to the park to see them. A stop at the local visitors bureau to learn what there might be to see in the region provided the information. The lesson is, do a little homework when you travel. You never know what you might be missing.

I am pleased that I didn t miss the manatees lumbering in the 72 degree spring waters on a chilly morning. They area an endangered species with faces only a mother could love, and their struggle to survive in their native habitat is sad.

Mr. Hartley begins every day on the job counting the manatees. The number is posted at the park registration office for the information of visitors. That morning he had counted 48. The day before the number was 87. On a really warm day at the park, there are fewer. When the temperature rises in the afternoon, they wander into the St. John s River, where the water is warmer and more comfortable for lunch. Visitors can call the park office in the morning to learn the number of manatees, but by afternoon there may be only half if the temperature has risen enough to lure them into the river to feed.

Mr. Hartley believes there are 187 manatees that come and go into the spring waters that are protected from swimmers and boaters by off-limits lines stretched across the water.

And who is to doubt him? He has been at the park since 1980, taking daily roll call, keeping an eye out for newcomers, and gaining respect for the herd as the survivors they are. People always say they are ugly, but I ve been with them so long they aren t to me, he said.

The scars on the bodies suffered from boats and fishing line injuries tell Mr. Hartley who is who. Because each scar pattern is different, they are easy for him to identify. His counting score sheets list the names of the manatees with the identifying scar patterns.

As an example, Peaches had a deep scar on his tail, which is shown in a graphic by his name. Mr. Hartley pointed to Success and explained it was so injured by a boat propeller that its bones were protruding from the sides when it came into the spring waters with its mother. Success survived.

No Tail has no tail. Floyd was left with half a tail after a boat clipped him. Deep Dent is rightly named.

The one manatee that might be misnamed is Flash. Manatees, according to Mr. Hartley, swim at a rate of one and half to two miles an hour.

The death of Jax last summer is still mourned. He was a lot of fun, Mr. Hartley said.

He names Phillip as his favorite. Phillip is named for a general in the western theater in the Civil War, as are some of the others, including Cleburne. Mr. Hartley is a native of Texas and a student of the war.

Blue Spring Park is visited annually by 350,000 people, including summer campers.

A boardwalk leads to the manatee viewing area, but don t expect to see the gentle giants real close. They are visible through the crystal-clear water in their natural habitat, which cannot be compared with a zoo aquarium.

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