Red Algae Bloom Kills Manatees, Sickens Tourists

Something is blooming off the west coast of Florida this spring, but it isn’t pretty: a tide of toxic red algae is killing manatees and making tourists sick.

Manatees, or sea cows, are already a dying breed. But the large concentration of aquatic microorganisms has killed 241 of Florida’s roughly 5,000 manatees, a toll that the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute says is certain to rise. Most manatee deaths occurred along the lower west coast of Florida near Fort Myers, where an algae bloom has been especially severe this year.

So what does the bloom mean for travelers? People have regularly had respiratory problems after inhaling brevetoxins while strolling on beaches near red tides, and can also become ill after eating seafood that have absorbed the toxins, including oysters and clams. For now, be wary of waters with a deep reddish-brown hue, especially off the Gulf of Mexico.

[Photo credit: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, Wikimedia Commons]

Boat ride through forgotten Florida at Wakulla Springs State Park

Most people who visit Wakulla Springs go for the gators. Still others want to check out where Johnny Weissmuller swung through the “jungle” as Tarzan in the 1930s and 40s or the dark, swampy thicket where the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” was said to lurk. Above all, travelers come to see the pristine tangled wilderness that is becoming rarer to find as Florida develops.

This is Wakulla Springs State Park, one of the most popular day trips from Tallahassee, Florida’s capital. A three-mile pontoon trip down the Wakulla River is the park’s biggest draw, giving visitors the chance to spot wildlife and plug into nature for the 45-minute ride.

On a sunny day, alligators can be spotted lazing on the banks of the Wakulla River or grimacing among the reeds and cypress knees along the shoreline. If they’re out, alligators make for splendid photography subjects, unlike the myriad fowl – great blue herons, white ibis, anhingas – which fly off right as you get them in your camera cross-hairs, or the manatees, which swim slowly just below the water line, never surfacing for their close-up. The park claims that between 20 to 30 manatees can be spotted swimming in the springs and river each day. I was satisfied to have seen a herd of about seven sea cows (another name for manatees) when I visited the park in December. There are only about 4,500 of these aquatic mammals left in the world and the estuaries and backwoods springs of Florida are one of the premier places to see them, especially in winter.

Wakulla Springs doesn’t have to be a day trip. On site is the grand Wakulla Springs Lodge, built in 1937 by Edward Ball, the financier and conservationist who owned this stretch of north Florida from 1934 until the mid-1960s when he sold it to the state of Florida for the establishment of a state park. The 27-room, Mediterranean-revival-style lodge is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and the surrounding park is a National Natural Landmark.


Image by wilsonb/Flickr

It’s swim with the manatees time

There’s only one place in the U.S. where it’s legal to swim with manatees and that’s Crystal River, Florida. The friend of mine who recently moved to Florida, told me this while pulling up a Web site to Crystal River.

Yep, sure enough. The manatees arrive in droves at Kings Bay along Florida’s west coast via the Gulf of Mexico starting the end of October. Picture 60 miles north of Tampa and 30 miles west of Ocala Oscala and you’re there. This pristine spot is the winter home for one of the world’s largest manatee herds that will frolic here until the end of March when they start heading north again.

A warning though, along with the manatees, people herd themselves here on the weekends. According to this one Web site with info on Crystal River, there are enough snorkelers in Tarpon Tampon Springs, (also called Kings Springs) that you could almost walk across the water on their backs. That sounds like an interesting sport. I wonder if you have to pay?

For this reason, the author suggests that you visit during the week, or head to one of the less visited springs. One, Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park is mentioned has an environmentally friendly twist. Here, besides just seeing the manatees, there are educational programs about them, as well as, the other wildlife in the area. Bird walks are monthly occurrences up until the end of May. If you head here June, July and August, no guided bird walk for you.

This month Lu’s Birthday Party is a featured event. Lu is the park hippo and a reason for a party each January. Here’s the link to the park’s events page that gives the details of all the happenings through the spring. The hippo pictured is Lu.

If you do plan to swim with manatees, check out the Web site Save the Manatees Club, first. Swimming with the manatees provides a thrill, but be careful how you go about it. The activity doesn’t always bode well for the manatees. Motor boats have motors, for example.

At Homossassa Springs there is an environmentally, manatee friendly excursion that sounds divine. For $40 bucks you head out in a kayak on a guided 3-hour tour. (The theme-song from Gilligan’s Island just popped into my head for a moment.) The photo to the left was taken at Three Sister Springs, another option.

For more manatee info from the Save the Manatee Club, click here. Also at the site, for $35 you can adopt a manatee and get a stuffed animal as a thank-you. Put a red bow around it’s neck, fasten a small box of chocolate in a heart-shaped box to it’s flipper and you have a Valentine’s Day present for a child. Hmmmm. Now, that’s an idea.

There are several swim with the manatee tours around Crystal River, but, like I mentioned, I’d keep the manatees in mind before heading out on a motorized boat. Although, since another major spot to view the manatees is at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and it is only accessible by boat, make sure you head to an establishment with reputable folks running it.

There are rules for where motorized boats can be used and where they can’t be. My general feeling is that people who make their money off wildlife do a pretty good job of taking care of it. They’re not likely to ruin their money tree.

To help you be in the know about appropriate manatee interactions, here’s a link to guidelines from the refuge. Also, here’s a Gadling post from Dolores Parker who had a personal experience swimming with the manatees last June. Even though she and her family went off-season, they did have some luck.

GADLING’S TAKE FIVE: Week of June 24

Some of these are still pretty recent posts that you SHOULD NOT have missed if you’ve been a good little Gadling reader checking in everyday. In the event you somehow slipped and missed a day or two here are five worthy of review.

5. Only in OZ: Irwin’s Whale Watching Boat:
Still feeling melancholy over the death of Steve Irwin? Don’t! Chances are he wouldn’t want you to be and if you find yourself heading to OZ soon this featured activity may be your chance to remember Steve and learn a lot about whales which he loved just as much as the famed crocs.

4. A Canadian in Beijing: Vegan Mandarin Language Survival Guide:

After reading this little language survival guide Ember whipped up, my head is full of useful new words to help out at the dinner table in China. I’m not vegan, but it never hurts to know.

3. Swimming with Manatees: Life in the Slow Zone:
When my friend invited me to swim with manatees the first time I laughed not really knowing what they were or thinking she was serious. After hearing how fun her trip was and this tale by Gadling guest blogger, Dolores Parker, I wish I were closer to Crystal River, FL to swim with them myself. If you’re searching for fun ways to hang with the family in Florida this one is sure to please all.

2. Traveling Tips from a Backpacking Geek:

No matter how prepared you think you are for your big trip ahead looking over some one else’s tips never hurts. Here are a few ideas from a backpacking geek on how to save digital photos and important documents from being lost forever.

1. Hilarious Hand-Written Airline Complaint:
In need of a good laugh? This has to be one of the funniest complaints I’ve ever seen in regards to that horrible seat next to the lavatory that some ‘poor soul’ gets stuck with on a completely packed flight. In this situation the poor individual decided to share the experience with the airlines in a laugh-out-loud hand-written complaint with pictures. A MUST READ.

Swimming with Manatees: Life in the Slow Zone

As far as swimming with mammals goes, dolphins seem to get all the press. However, there’s another large, docile, friendly Flipper-like mammal we wanted to get up close and personal with – the Florida manatee. To pay homage to Florida’s state marine mammal, we decided to take a family excursion to snorkel with them in Crystal River, Florida, located approximately 1 hour north of Tampa on Florida’s gulf coast.

After doing some research online, we decided to book our snorkel trip with American Pro Diving, located in Crystal River, right off Hwy 19. We were impressed with their affiliation with National Geographic, PADI, and Make A Wish Foundation, and we liked their manatee tour video.

We were off bright and early at 7:00 a.m. to catch up with our manatee friends. There was some uncertainty as to whether we would get a manatee encounter since the majority of manatees migrate away from Crystal River in the summer months. However, we were mostly optimistic we would get to swim with them.

American Pro Diving did not disappoint. Their new Dive Center was spacious and filled with everything you ever wanted to know or buy about manatees. After filling out the paperwork, we geared up with nice, clean wetsuits and snorkel equipment. The staff was great, very courteous and professional.

Next step was watching a short informational video about manatees and how they should be treated since they are endangered wild animals. Afterwards, we piled in our car for the short drive to Pete’s Pier, where our pontoon boat was put into King’s Bay.

We boarded the boat and got ready for our adventure. Our group consisted of 3 adults and 4 children ages 6-15.

Quinn, our guide gave us a short spiel on safety and then we were off.

We puttered out to King’s Bay and after an extremely short 5 minutes ride, we slipped into a quiet inlet and looked for a recently sighted manatee mom and calf.

Quinn dived in and while he didn’t spot the mom and baby, he did find a manatee having a seagrass breakfast. Several of us piled into the water to have a look for ourselves.

After a short 10-20 yard swim, we surrounded the manatee who kept right on having her seagrass breakfast. A group of about 4-5 of us were literally almost on top of her and she remained indifferent to us disturbing her breakfast. Closely related to the elephant, manatees are herbivorous, feasting daily on vegetation up to as much as 15% of their body weight. About 10 feet long and 1,000 lbs., an adult manatee spends 6 to 8 hours eating, and the rest of the day resting or traveling.

We scratched her skin, which was leathery, tough and taut, similar to the feel of a football. She was covered with algae which would get dislodged when we scratched her.

She must have liked the scratch massage with her breakfast because she rolled over and let us scratch her tummy. Then someone inadvertently kicked her tail, which she really did not like and she terminated our encounter by swiftly swimming away.

We knew we didn’t hurt her, but we did annoy her and as a result we were really careful to keep our fins to ourselves and out of the way.

We got back in the boat and puttered off to another location close by where we met at least 10 additional manatees, 2 of which were moms and their newborn calves. One newborn was only about 1-2 days old and looked like a small grey white sausage appended to a giant grey sausage. It was very cute.

We were cautioned not to herd the moms and newborns and definitely did not touch them.

Due to recent storms, water visibility was poor, so mask and snorkel were key to a good look at our manatee friends.

The children, while hesitant at first, got acclimated to the water and the strange slimy feel of the seagrass beneath them. Soon they were among the first to get close to the manatees and they hung right in there with them. Our manatee friends were so docile and friendly – it was as if we’d known each other all our lives. They were completely comfortable sharing their seagrass beds with us and letting us into their manatee habitat.

Our manatee encounter lasted about 2 hours and we met several different manatee friends. When we returned to the Dive Center, a DVD video of our encounter with underwater footage was played for us on the big screen. For $40, we declined to purchase, but it was a tough decision. All told the excursion plus the equipment rental (mask, snorkel, fins and wetsuit) cost $62 per person.

Everyone had a great time. For our next wildlife excursion, we’re thinking of getting scuba certified and diving in Florida’s Rainbow River where the water clarity is crystal clear.

Dolores Parker is a blogger for our sister site She lives in Florida and enjoys taking frequent trips off the beaten path.