‘They’re like family’: How a researcher is dedicated to manatee preservation

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Artwork by Lauren Ibanez

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On a cool January morning, elegant gray manatees glide down the crystal clear waterway of the Blue Spring Trail in Orange City, Florida. Pointing at them while drifting in a red canoe are Cora Berchem and her co-researcher Wayne Hartley, counting 52 sea cows.

“Manatees are truly charismatic animals,” says Berchem, director of multimedia and manatee research associate at the Save the Manatee Club. “I feel like they don’t get as much attention as some other animals like whales and dolphins. People don’t know them very well. But I’m just fascinated by them.

Berchem is not only fascinated by manatees, but also dedicated to preserving their numbers. Climate change has threatened the species in recent years, and a key part of Berchem’s research is assessing the effects of climate change on the manatee population – where the manatees go and if they need rescue. She also produces educational films and manages the club’s social networks as part of its outreach.

Just an hour after sunrise, Berchem sports water shoes as they arrive at Blue Spring State Park, the same as yesterday and the day before. She walks to the buoy line where the waterway meets the St. Johns River, dipping into a thermometer. Seeing the temperature of the river, she and Hartley head for a nearby research canoe, pushing it into the water.

Cora Berchem smiling in front of the water

Conservationist Cora Berchem arrives before 8 a.m. each day at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Florida. At the park, she does a vital job in manatee research: hand counting sea cows in the waterway.

“Counting manatees is really important because we want to see how the population is doing,” Berchem says. “We want to see what the survival rates are. We want to see calf survival. This year we have over 70 calves, which is very promising, so we are watching them very closely.

Florida had the highest manatee death rate in 2021, with 1,101 manatees dead through Dec. 31, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Such a high number of manatee deaths is unprecedented, according to Berchem.

Manatees are calm and docile indicators of the state of the environment they share with humans. Beyond that, manatees are important for other reasons. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, they control invasive species, such as water hyacinth and hydrilla. Berchem says sea cows help keep waterways open to boaters by grazing on aquatic plants. Additionally, they help Florida’s economy by attracting tourists who specially come to see them in their natural habitat.

Manatees enter the Blue Spring Waterway from November to March to escape the colder temperatures of the St. Johns River. However, Berchem says the numbers have fluctuated, which is unusual for this time of year. After seeing over 500 manatees at a time in early December, Berchem saw a sudden decrease to around five to 10 manatees a few weeks later.

A mother and her baby manatee underwater

A young manatee swims close to its mother, catching the attention of park visitors gazing into the shallow spring upwelling. Tracking calf survival is an important part of Berchem’s work, which said 70 calves were counted at Blue Spring in 2021.

Rising temperatures and water levels, stronger storms and erratic weather patterns are results of climate change threatening the manatee population, Berchem says. When manatees migrate too far due to warmer waters, sudden temperature drops leave them stranded, where they can die from cold stress. Additionally, hurricanes and rising waters can often move manatees inland or into a dead-end waterway, leaving them stranded as well.

“It’s warmed up so quickly that they’re leaving the source and going into the St. Johns River to feed because there’s really no food for them during the spring run,” Berchem says. “What worries me are days like today when it suddenly drops, the temperatures drop very quickly overnight. And I feel because we’ve had really, really hot weather the last two weeks…these manatees have migrated a long way, and I’m a little worried that they won’t come back in time for hot water.

Berchem and his co-researcher Wayne Hartley float in a canoe

Berchem and his co-researcher Wayne Hartley float in a canoe on the Blue Spring Trail, pointing out every manatee they see. The count can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours each morning, according to Berchem.

A rescued manatee being measured

Blue Spring State Park gained a new resident when Gibbs the manatee was released into the wild by volunteers from SeaWorld and the Save the Manatee Club. Her name is a reference to the ’70s hit “Staying Alive,” as she continuously received CPR during the 97-mile journey from Welaka, Putnam County, to SeaWorld.

    Manatees swim quietly in the waterway

Manatees leisurely swim in the waterway at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City. The gentle creatures can hold their breath underwater for up to 20 minutes before coming back up to breathe, Berchem said.

Moving from Germany to New Jersey and then Florida showed Berchem that climate change was not just a problem in Florida or the United States, but on a global scale. Berchem recalls that in 2012, when she was living in New Jersey, Hurricane Sandy hit the northeastern United States and severely affected people.

“People there are not prepared for hurricanes like we are here in Florida,” Berchem said. “I’m dealing with more severe hurricanes and really changeable weather. And then looking at Germany, for example, my family still lives there. And last year they had massive mid-summer floods that literally wiped out entire towns.

Unfortunately, climate change continues to affect Berchem’s work in Florida. In the eight years Berchem has worked with manatees, she has participated in numerous rescue missions throughout the state of Florida.

“We literally had to rescue between five and 50 manatees in areas where they really wouldn’t have entered if it hadn’t been for the really heavy storms,” says Berchem.

Saving manatees and preserving their population is more than just protecting wildlife. For Berchem, these gentle creatures have become like family. Berchem and Hartley name the manatees they count in the Blue Spring Waterway not just to identify them, but to humanize them.

“Every year when we start doing the counts in November and you see all these manatees coming back, it’s like your family is coming home for the holidays or seeing your friends,” says Berchem.

Receiving a call to retrieve a manatee carcass can be emotional, Berchem says, and makes her wonder which of her aquatic friends were gone.

“You don’t want to see any of them, but it’s especially heartbreaking if it’s one you’ve known very, very well for years,” Berchem says. “It’s more than just counting numbers and counting animals and putting them in a database. It really is more personal than that.

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