Stories of a Airboat Guide
History and the Etiquette of the Adventure
By: Glenn Wilsey, Sr.
In my last story I made reviewed the rules of engagement when it comes to interacting with manatees. Now, I would like to give some history about manatees. Later, I will discuss some additional points on interacting with the manatees.
Manatees have always been a food source for humans.15,000 years ago native Americans also inhabited the southern parts of North America. They hunted the animals of the area and made use of every part of the animal, including the skin, meat, bones and teeth. 400 years ago. The human population was not large enough to overtake the amount of animals in the ecosystem.
In one of my past stories (www.aaof.us/tour11.htm) I talked about the population explosion after the tribes of North America introduced corn to the rest of the world. When corn was sent to Europe and was fed to the animals, the animals grew bigger and faster. More food made the population of Europe explode. As the population of Europe grew, space for humans grew small. North America seems to be the place to come and prosper.
The Europeans were careless and would kill an animal just for the meat or hide of an animal, discarding anything left over. The American bison was the best example of that. There were times when thousands of bison were found dead on the prairie and the only thing taken was hide, hooves or horns.
In the 1400-1500s, there were forty to sixty million mid-western bison. In the late 1800s, the U.S. Government wanted to wipe out the bison, saying that if the bison were gone, the Native Americans would be forced to live on reservations.
Work on the first transcontinental railroad began after President Abraham Lincoln approved the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, a landmark law that authorized the federal government to financially back the construction of a transcontinental railroad. The people who worked on building the railroad were fed bison as the animal was a good food source, and there were plenty of them. The train rides across the west were long and boring. Sometimes the people would shoot the bison they passed along the way for fun.
The bison would have been the perfect animal to farm for food. Humans killed off the bison population and in the next fifty to sixty years the human population grew fast. With help from the American Bison Society and ranchers, the American bison is no longer an endangered species.
The Great Depression occurred and was an economic slump in North America, Europe, and other industrialized areas of the world that began in 1929 and lasted until about 1939. It was the longest and most severe depression ever experienced by the industrialized western world. People needed to eat and the manatees were an easy target. By the time World War II ended, the manatees were on the brink of extinction. The manatee count was less than six-hundred. In 1950 there was an official count and there were less than six-hundred manatees in the U.S. After the war, it was thought that the Manatee population would grow by leaps and bounds. For the next twenty-five years, the birth rate was great, but the survival rate was not. The reason? Speedboats. Manatees were being hit at high speeds, causing blunt force trauma that caused internal injuries, and obtaining deep flesh wounds from the propellers.
In 1972, laws under the Marine Protection Act were put into place to protect the manatees. Jacque Cousteau, the author and researcher who studied the sea and all forms of life in water, was one of the leaders that helped pass the laws that saved the manatee from extinction.
The No.1 rule that saved the manatee was the placement of manatee zones. A large square sign stating "MANATEE ZONE" depicts the beginning of a zone. The sign indicates how fast you can continue; idle, slow or no wake. These signs are placed where the water in the channel is shallow, where the channel is narrow or where manatees congregate in the winter months.
It has been proven that the Marine Protection Act is what saved the manatee. By World War II the manatee population was around six-hundred. Twenty-five years later in there were less than seven-hundred manatees and the protection laws were enacted. Now, forty-five years later, there are over six-thousand manatees. There is event talk about taking them off the endangered species list. This proves that when humans act responsible, species can be saved.
Citrus County, Florida is the only place that humans are given the privilege of interacting with wild manatees. With this privilege comes a lot of responsibility and many rules as well.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I refuse to believe that our Maker
(The great breath-maker) doesnt see the human animal any different than any other animal that he put on earth. I believe that humans should have the right to hang out with and interact with any animal on earth that wants to hang out with the human animal anytime they want to.
The rules are set by city, state and the federal government. In some cases, they can update the rules. I will follow their rules as they set or update them. There are a lot of different entities out there that think everyone should go by their rules. We all have an opinion on how to interact with manatees. Its not hard to figure out. If you dont want it done to you then dont do it to the manatee. Law enforcement is out there to prosecute those who do not follow the rules.
As a captain with a manatee-adventure company, I see the best in this business and the worst. The only solution that I can offer, is to watch the best and copy what they do. Do the right thing and you cant go wrong. I let everyone know that I have the authority to send anyone back to the boat and end their tour. I set easy-to-understand rules before we even leave the dock. Thankfully, I have never had to end a tour for anyone. Once in a while I will have to send people back to the ladder on the boat, and talk with them privately and re-view the rules. Once we agree on the rules again, then we go back to interact with the manatee.
There are people in the business that say how do we stop people from, diving on sleeping or eating manatees, or chasing, poking, prodding, grabbing, hovering over or interfering with the direction that the manatee wants to move. The answer is easy - get in the water and be sure all rules are being followed.
As a captain/tour guide, I am not afraid to politely tell the tourists what to do and not do. We as captain/ tour guides cant expect everyone to remember all of the rules. Everyone is excited to see manatees and its easy to make mistakes. Some ask how we control what tourists do when they disappear way back in the springs: again, I say - "get in the water."
If I have to take a chance of getting someone upset by restating the rules or even sending them back to the boat, so be it. I tell everyone that the manatees safety is my No. 1 concern and the people are my No. 1 concern. Some say, "how can you have 2 No. 1 concerns?" Thats easy I dont see any difference between the human animal and any other animal on earth.
I am a very strict tour guide but Im also very fair. I want the visiting "animals" to have fun and the local animals to have fun.
YES - fun - when I go on vacation I go to have fun. I dont go to hear someone play scientist or have their political views pushed on me. I find that if people are having fun while learning, they remember so much more. When I have fun with the tourists and teach them at the same time, then I know I have made a difference in their lives.
When it comes to equipment, it is necessary for those that experience the adventure of swimming with the manatees to have a wet suit, fins, mask and snorkel. The wet suit is important for warmth, flotation and it keeps out any mud or floating debris as well. The mask and snorkel is needed for clear vision because if you cant look in the water and see a manatee, you may kick, poke or bunch a manatee while venturing into the water. Fins are important as I want my tourists to be able to get out of the way of any boats that may venture into the swimming area. There are many un-seasoned boaters who can make bad judgment calls. The fins are not used to chase the manatees. There are some expert swimmers who can swim as fast as people with fins. Manatees can swim about twenty-twenty-five to miles-an-hour for long distances. However, no human can keep up with them for very long. I believe the captain or tour guide is there to stop that from happening in the first place.
One captain told me once; "one" of my people got kicked in the main spring by people with fins." Well. I have been kicked with fins and kicked with bare feet and being kicked with fins was much better.
My mantra as a captain: "If you dont want it done to you, then dont do it to the wild life."
I finish with this thought: Please go out and have fun with the other animals on our wonderful earth. Learn about them first and make good decisions and be safe at all times.
I want to Thank, my friend Patti Boccassini, of The Harrisburg Magazine for doing the "Edit" on this story. My editor Alan Coral has been standing by his Fathers side in a time of family need.
Patti has been on a manatee tour with me in the past and it is obvious that she can see my love for manatees and feel my passion for wildlife.
Capt. Glenn, Aka - GATORMAN
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