It's hard out there for a 'tee. Florida's population of endangered yet lovable underwater hunks, the manatee, has had a mixed 2015 so far. Yes, the manatee season – which runs from November to the first week April, when the water temperatures lure herds south to Florida – ended with a low manatee-body count. In Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, only three manatees were killed this season.
But other issues continue to threaten the creatures: mainly, dumb-ass tourists. Environmentalists have been pushing the federal government to crack down on rules that currently allow gawkers to get close and swim with manatees in federal refuges. They've even threatened a lawsuit over the issue.
It seems that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees share the same concerns as environmentalists. In an email recently released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a park official documents one particularly ugly run-in with a group of fashionistas who were using manatees as a backdrop for a photo shoot.
The email release is part of PEER's push to hold the U.S. government accountable for the disruptive behavior on the part of tourists who swim and cavort with the manatees in federal refuges, particularly in the Crystal River. Last month, the group threatened to sue to stop the government from issuing permits to dive shops who offer people a chance to swim with the animals and force the government to tighten up regulation.
This week, PEER released the email, which really hammer home their point. The email was written in March 2014 by a refuge manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to another FWS official. The official had been at the Three Sisters Spring when he "met a group of two people on paddle boards, two photographers with very large underwater cameras and flash arrays and/or continuous video lighting, and a young woman hanging onto one of the paddle boards in a pink chiffon dress."
"I was immediately concerned because five or six manatees were using the springs at the time," the official wrote. "I asked them if they were conducting commercial photography and they said that were not [sic]. I asked them if they were taking pictures of dresses and manatees, and they said they were not photographing manatees, only doing fashion photography."
The park official left it at that, but continued to watch the crew work. Although the model and photographers were not diving directly onto the animals, their feet kicks were forcing the critters to move. "Their actions clearly changed the natural resting behavior of the manatee," he writes. Such interference is termed "take," in official lingo, as defined by the Endangered Species Act as indirect or direct harassment of endangered animals.
The park official kept watching the crew throughout the day.
"Although they were not diving down on to the manatees, it appeared they were trying to get a picture of the model underwater with a manatee in the background. Regardless of their motives, they were close enough to the manatee that their activities could result in a . . . disturbance."
The park employee again told the crew that it was illegal to dive down around sleeping manatees. The woman photographer got upset. Later, when the park official was getting ready to leave the spring, he saw the group heading out as well. He overheard the photographers talking about him, how "he was just given a little bit of power and it went to his head," and "I bet he has a little dick and no balls." The park employee ignored the shit-talk, but then as he was leaving, "they began to attack me verbally with great vitriol."
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[T]he man on the paddle board accused me of unjustly correcting the behavior of the two women and said I had been rude to them, and that I especially should not be rude to women. The male photographer in the group then said, "Yeah, you don't have any balls." As I attempted to explain they were in a National Wildlife Refuge and that our purpose was to protect manatees, not take pictures of models in dresses, the man on the paddle board became increasingly aggressive. Finally, he interrupted me by shouting, "You're just a dick in a wet suit!" As I explained why I had been concerned with their activities and the mission of the NWR, and how the women had initially changed the behavior of a sleeping manatee, he continued to interrupt me and shout, "You're a dick in a wet suit!" He did this five or six times before finally exiting the springs.
"Unfortunately, every staff member or Manatee Watch volunteer who has tried to educate people about proper behavior around manatees in the springs has a similar story," the park official concludes. "I had just never experienced this degree of animosity or viciousness of verbal attacks." The rest of his letter outlines general issues this kind of invasiveness is causing, including "amateur flash photography" that is "out-of-hand in the springs."
He concludes: "[A[ctivites by an uneducated public are likely resulting in the regular take of manatees inside the spring."
Maybe the most disturbing part is the aw-shucks-oh-well response the officials email gets from his FWS colleague he sent the email too: "Can't believe that happened," the other official states. "That's why I limit my recreation here to when I have company visiting because whenever you are inside TSS [Three Sisters Spring], someone is always doing something that's not right."