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Manatees at Home in Alabama Waters
by Denise Rowell
Photo Credit: Tracy Colson, USFWS
The waters of coastal Alabama are known for many things. Whether you are fishing for speckled trout, watching the mullet jump, or lounging in a boat on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the Mobile Bay is a treasured part of Alabama's culture. Now, this beloved bay is becoming popular for another reason. Over the past several years, biologists and residents have been tracking manatees here and surrounding river systems.
West Indian manatees (Trichechus manatus) are often associated with warm waters in Florida, where they are concentrated during winter months, usually November through March. But these endangered animals are much more widely distributed during summer months, and sightings in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina are relatively common. Mobilians are quickly learning that manatees are no strangers to the Alabama Gulf Coast.
For years, Suzi Mutascio, a resident of Dog River for 22 years, believed sightings of these gentle giants in Alabama were just folklore. This changed in August 2010, when she witnessed a manatee capture first-hand.
"There were veterinarians, students, and biologists right next to my house, including folks from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sea World, and Dauphin Island Sea Lab's Manatee Sighting Network," says Mutascio. "They brought the manatee to my convenient beach. I still cannot find the words to aptly describe the poignancy of that experience for me. I was in a complete state of awe to be so close to such a magnificent animal."
According to Dr. Ruth Carmichael, a senior marine scientist at the University of South Alabama, manatees are not accidental visitors to the area.
"They are regular, at least seasonal residents," says Carmichael, who founded the Dauphin Island Sea Lab's Manatee Sighting Network. "We have many of the same animals returning from year to year. We also have evidence that some of our visiting manatees may spend more time in the northern Gulf than in peninsular Florida, which changes much of what has been previously understood about these animals."
Scientists tagged the first manatee, later nicknamed "Bama." Since then, scientists have learned a great deal about the timing of manatee migration and movement patterns.
"Recovery of endangered species is the ultimate goal for species protected under the ESA. Research and knowledge about this species' behavior and time spent in Alabama waters contribute to potential steps in reaching that goal," says Dianne Ingram, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Alabama Field Office. "Confirming that some of these same animals return to Alabama year after year tells me we are doing something right."
In 2012 alone, biologists recorded 175 public manatee sightings in Alabama. Carmichael and other researchers are able to track this information thanks to funding provided by the Endangered Species Act. "Our goal is to study their travel routes and get data on where they spend time in Alabama. Knowing this will help us learn about their migration patterns and habitat to aid in their recovery, says Ingram.
As for the locals, manatee recovery has become a great concern. At Dog River, manatees have become part of their cultural heritage, and residents are taking pride in these frequent visitors. The neighborhood is now decorated with signs, educating folks on the presence of manatees.
"It's amazing how these gentle giants have fostered a sense of community cohesiveness! says Mutascio, who has hosted several community gatherings at her house to discuss protective measures for manatees. According to Mutascio, manatee outreach and education has inspired families to learn more about Alabama's great outdoors.
Denise Rowell, a public affairs specialist in the Service's Alabama Field Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 251-441-6630.
Editor's note: If you see a manatee or would like to volunteer, please call 1-866-493-5803.
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