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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Foresaken Mermaids

Air Date: Week of

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Philippe Cousteau swims with a manatee in Blue Spring, Florida. (Photo: WaltStearns.com)

In 1970, oceanographer Jacques Cousteau visited Blue Spring in Florida to film a documentary on the manatees that depended on its warm water for their survival. Boat traffic and harassment had turned their winter safe haven into a danger zone. Jacques Cousteau’s grandson, Philippe, brings us the story of the manatee’s new fight for survival in the face of development and Florida’s rising demand for water.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

The famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau first visited northeast Florida's Blue Spring to report on the plight of the manatee in 1970. The picture then was grim. Pleasure boats jammed the creek that flows out of the spring, and the eleven manatees that sought refuge in the spring's warm waters were being harassed. Some people rode them with rope harnesses; some animals had initials carved in their backs. Even the youngest calves had propeller scars from collisions with boats traveling too fast. Then Mr. Cousteau and his son, produced a television documentary called, "The Forgotten Mermaids" and everything changed.

Floridians opened their hearts to the plant-eating mammal. Blue Spring was protected as a state park. All Florida waters became a sanctuary for manatees. The manatee population rebounded. But now the slow moving manatee has run into a new challenge. And 36 years after his father and grandfather made that famous film, Philippe Cousteau, returned to Blue Spring and offers this perspective on the present plight of the manatee.

COUSTEAU: Deep cobalt blue water surges up out of a dark limestone chasm in the woods, known as "Blue Spring." On a warm summer day here, a few swimmers are splashing in the 72 degree waters of the springhead and in the creek that runs off from it. As it flows out to the St. Johns River, it meanders through a jungle-like forest of cypress, sabal palms, and wild grapevines. Herons balance on stilt-like legs at the water’s edge, as an alligator with a black hide ribbed like tire treads hangs near the far shore.

Philippe Cousteau retraces his father and grandfather’s 1970 expedition to Blue Spring. (Photo: WaltStearns.com)


COUSTEAU: Although this aquatic mammal now has its own fan club, its own festival, its own designation as the state’s official marine mammal---and its own place in the hearts of many Floridians---its future is clouded.

Looking like a giant grey plush toy with small front flippers, a flat heavy tail and tiny human-like eyes, the manatee seems as if it has been jerry-rigged together.

ROSE: The closest living land relative would be the elephant.

COUSTEAU: Patrick Rose is a former Florida Department of Environmental Protection biologist who now directs the Save the Manatee Club.

ROSE: If you look at the upper lips of a manatee, they can grab ahold of vegetation much like an elephant can use its trunk.

COUSTEAU: Manatees, since they are mammals like we are, react the same way from long immersions in cold water. They may suffer from hypothermia or pneumonia---both of which can be fatal.

In summer, these manatees graze in the tea-colored water of the St. Johns River, and throughout southern coastal waters - in bays, rivers and marinas. But by winter, the river waters turn cold. It’s then that the warm-blooded manatees are in jeopardy of cold stress and death. So they swim upstream into the comparatively warm water of Blue Spring.

ROSE: This is a very critical spring for manatees. In fact it's one of the few places in Florida where the manatee population is actually growing. And without those natural springs to anchor them during the wintertime the manatees future is very un-secure.

HARTLEY: Out in the vegetation there something just came up.

COUSTEAU: Wayne Hartley is the ranger at Blue Spring. Today, he takes me out in a canoe in the spring creek to get a closer look at a manatee that has just strayed in. Under us, the clear spring creek seems like a giant aquarium.

COUSTEAU: They’re swimming around now, you can see them.

Philippe Cousteau swims with a manatee in Blue Spring, Florida. (Photo: WaltStearns.com)

HARTLEY: Well they love to play over there. When I come out here; if this dark water is down, of course they’d be on the bottom in the winter...

COUSTEAU: Wayne first started identifying and counting the manatees here some 25 years ago. Ironically, the propeller and boat keel scars on most manatees help Hartley distinguish one from the other.

COUSTEAU: Is that a gar?

HARTLEY: A long nosed gar.

COUSTEAU: It's beautiful through here.

HARTLEY: Isn't it?

COUSTEAU: It's kind of primordial.

COUSTEAU: All this moss hanging down from these old trees hanging out over the water. The water is crystal clear to, you can see straight to the bottom.

HARTLEY: I think it’s Phyllis out there who I believe is the daughter of Phoebe who was here in 1970.

COUSTEAU: No kidding!

COUSTEAU: A Carolina Wren's song cuts through the sound of passing boats in the river channel. Ranger Hartley shows me a list of manatees that dates to when my father and grandfather were first at Blue Spring.

HARTLEY: This is the manatee's that have come in here since ’70-’71, starting with these are the ones that Philippe and Jacques filmed.

COUSTEAU: That's incredible. Gotta tell you, it means a lot to me to be back here after, you know, knowing my father and mother because my mom was on the expedition as well.

HARTLEY: They filmed 11 manatees; that's how many we had back there in ‘70-’71.

COUSTEAU: Hartley can now identify over 400 manatees by scar configuration. And each has an unlikely name---like Phoebe, Millie, Carl, Chuck, Milton---and Merlin and Brutus who were here in 1971. Some he met as calves; others as 2,500 pound, 14-foot long adults. And he knows them by personality, too

HARTLEY: It's just like people. Some manatee calves are very well behaved and stay with their mother, other manatee calves are little brats who don't come when they're called and ignore their mother

COUSTEAU: But now, this place, Blue Spring, where manatee protection began, is seen by some as a giant water tank that can provide for thousands of new residents who want to call Florida home.

Pro-growth advocates like Susan Darden, director of the Volusia County Homebuilders Association, support a plan to tap the spring. She says the increased need for water is simply a byproduct of a healthy economy.

DARDEN: It's easy to blame development. And development is, and nobody likes to hear this, but development is just a part of we supply places for people to live and people need human beings made clothing, food, and shelter. And that's what they need. We provide the shelter part.

People want to live in Florida. And this is still the United States, and if you want to live in Florida we're going to try and accommodate you. And if we can't here, somewhere in the state we can. Unfortunately as Americans we tend to use a lot of water. People are going to move to Florida. This is a beautiful area. Do you blame them?

COUSTEAU: Floridians actually use considerably more water than the average American; 170 gallons per day per person, compared to the national average of 110. Springs aren’t the only places manatees seek warmer water. They've actually found refuge in the warm discharge from power plants. But some of these plants are closing, so manatees must rely more on natural refuges such as the springs. The St. Johns River Water Management District, when it next meets on Oct. 10 may allow withdrawals that will diminish blue spring by 16 percent from its current volume---and decrease the amount of warm habitat for the animals by 37 percent. To understand the significance of that, it helps to know something about how the spring used to flow and how springs are connected underground throughout the Florida peninsula.

Blue Spring, described by naturalist William Bartram in the 18th century as a “"diaphanous fountain", once surged with such force that rowboats had difficulty paddling atop the springhead. When its flow was first measured in the 1930’s, it was 125 million gallons a day. But before the heavy rains from hurricanes two years ago, it had dropped to 84 million gallons a day. Critics like Patrick Rose are outraged the water district would consider taking more.

ROSE: Blue Spring is already down in terms of its volume of flow, and it's also substantially more polluted. I began swimming here more than 30 years ago and diving, and working with manatees, and just walking down this morning I was looking at the spring and how much further degraded it was. Even in the last several years. So we are down volume, more polluted, and now we're going to reduce the volume more.

COUSTEAU: Under the plan before the water district, local utilities couldn't keep taking water from Blue Spring forever. Over the next eighteen years, they would have to switch to river water. Why not use river water from the start? Because it's polluted with agricultural and suburban runoff and drinking it will require building several expensive treatment plants. The way Rose and other advocates see it, manatees are being asked to pay the price for Florida's pro-growth policies, and legacy of chemically treated lawns and fields.

ROSE: Blue Spring and the fight this symbolizes what this thing is all about. But now it’s being threatened from things that are miles and miles away because this is not just one spring right here. It’s connected to a whole network through the underground aquifer in Florida. The recharge areas are huge which feed the water that comes here. And we’re not being responsible with the rest of that basin.

COUSTEAU: Recharge. It’s a word you often here in a state where plentiful rain soaks through limestone and into a shallow water table. The rain seeps down through the uplands and replenishes the underground maze of streams and rivers in the limestone below, then surges up into the springs.

During my visit, I dived inside this 120-foot deep spring to understand the hydrology a little better. And I came away with a sense of awe for the enormous energy that upwells from inside the dark limerock.

Bob Rundle manages Blue Spring State Park. Like other rangers, he worries that reducing the spring flow will hurt the manatees that migrate here in droves when the river temperature drops into the low sixties during the winter.

RUNDLE: The worst-case scenario is low pool, water levels in the middle of winter, with a really really bad cold snap. A cold snap that’s going to last several days or a week, where you get very very cold temperatures and the river water is already cold, and you've got a really low level in the river, and the water level is low here in the spring, that all the manatees potentially could not fit in here.

COUSTEAU: There are over 200 manatees in the Blue Spring now, and projections of 300 more in years to come. One of the greatest fears is that without enough water to keep them warm, the herd will simply begin to die one by one.

I travel north to Palatka, Florida to ask Hal Wilkening, the Water District's environmental engineer about the new spring water withdrawal system.

COUSTEAU: If this is so mired in controversy, so risky potentially for not just for the manatees as you pointed out, but for the natural resources here for the future of the state, why even propose this? Why not require them to find the surface water alternatives right away?

WILKENING: What we've been directed to do by the Florida legislature is to do water supply planning, there's a lot of efforts under way now to fully utilize reclaimed water resources, to meet irrigation demands, so they are not meeting irrigation demands from groundwater. Then beyond that they are working on using surface water from the river to augment the reclaimed water systems, to kind of maximize the use of reclaimed water. We actually built a pilot plant in Sanford down on Lake Monroe, and ran it for a year and a half. We showed these utilities that this water is treatable. There's a way to treat it. And we showed them what the cost would be.

COUSTEAU: Skeptics point out that Water Management District Board members were appointed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is a developer and a strong pro-growth advocate.

WILKENING: Is there a point where we draw the line -- that we have to draw the line with development? And just we can't let people come in and continue to come in… is there a point that we reach, when do we reach that point. What kind of discussion has there been about that? Or is that something people don't want to talk about?

Linda Burnette, the public information officer for the Water Management District, gives me a very straightforward answer:

BURNETTE: Well we are legislatively mandated to provide water. So that's our job to do.

COUSTEAU: Florida used to have an abundance of water, and regional "Flood Control Districts" were set up to drain it away. But those became "Water Management Districts" in the early 1970's, charged with protecting water resources. They can do studies, promote conservation and restrict the times when homeowners can water their yards. But they have no powers to limit new developments, even if they are sucking the groundwater dry. Some city officials require the re-use of gray water for irrigation, but most do not. Water District boards are at the mercy of a growth economy that welcomes 1,000 new residents a day into Florida.

COUSTEAU: To top it off, there's disagreement about whether manatees really are in recovery. The state of Florida recently downlisted them from endangered to threatened. Patrick Rose has his doubts.

ROSE: We really need people to understand that it is in certain people's best interest to paint a picture for manatees better than it is. Because that will give them opportunities to sort of exploit the habitat. I can see that the big-money specialist interests for the growth and development generally are weighing out with our politicians, and nature is really coming second.

COUSTEAU: All the research shows that manatees in Blue Spring and in the Crystal River/Homassas Springs area on the northwest Gulf coast are increasing. But, they only account for 16 percent of the Florida population. And other studies indicate as much as half the state's manatees may be lost in the next 45 years, mostly due to accidents in which boaters are moving too fast for manatees to get out of the way.

It makes me yearn for a simpler time when there were fewer people and fewer boats--- and Florida springs flowed freely, as powerful as the diaphanous fountains that naturalist Bartram once described. To satisfy my yearning, I track down Gordon Pierson, Jr., who lived here as a young boy in 1970 when his family owned the spring where “Forgotten Mermaids” was filmed as part of "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau."

COUSTEAU: Anything you remember in particular, any stories?

PIERSON: Well just after it aired we got letters from high school to elementary kids from all over the every place it aired we’d get letters wanting us to protect the manatee and see what we could do to make sure they survived. And my dad credits your dad, or your grandfather and your dad, with selling this place to the state because before that happened the state didn't realize this place was even here.

COUSTEAU: Everything we do makes a difference. As for the manatees, we should consider whether what we do today at Blue Spring will help or harm the Florida environment we all love. My grandfather made this observation, after working to successfully return an injured manatee to his natural home in the St. Johns River.

"We can never say we gave him freedom, for freedom is not man's to give. Man can only take it away. When we released 'Sam' from captivity - we merely returned to him what was already his by nature."

Perhaps if we protect the natural systems that allow manatees to flourish, future generations will know some of the magic I’ve experienced at Blue Spring during my own visit. And these forgotten mermaids will forever be remembered.

For Living on Earth, I'm Philippe Cousteau.

CURWOOD: Our story on manatees comes to Living on Earth courtesy of Earthecho International. For more about the manatees, go to our website, living on earth dot org.



Earthecho International

Manatees at Blue Spring Expedition


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