When I led boat tours down the Peace River, guests were always excited to see animals in the wild. You could go to a zoo, of course, but there’s just something about seeing wildlife in its natural habitat, where they are free to be their instinctive, sometimes undpredictable selves.
Perhaps no two critters say “FLORIDA!” more than the docile manatee and its somewhat more ferocious counterpart, the American alligator.
I have been asked many times how it is I can spot wildlife, especially alligators. I can do it with such accuracy, some of my tour guests used to think the animals were planted. (Actually, I tried that, but the gators wouldn’t cut a deal … not enough money.)
The good news is: I can assure you that you will see them — if you know where and how to look. Here are some tips.
The mild-mannered manatee
This warm-blooded mammal, also known as a sea cow, is a relative of (believe it or not) the elephant and lives entirely in the water.
They have received a lot of attention over the years because of their low numbers and conflicting accuracy about the population of the species. West Indian manatees migrated from the Caribbean, where they were first recorded by sailors. (Lore has it that some sailors mistook manatees for mermaids. I, for one, can’t imagine having such raging hormones that a sea cow somehow resembles Ariel.)
Since manatees are warm-blooded, their fat protects them from really cold water. As temperatures warm, they swim and migrate northward, searching for new feeding areas. In winter temperatures, manatee herds would swim back to the Caribbean and warmer waters.
Despite looking like the sumo wrestlers of the sea, manatees are actually quite gentle creatures. There are 12 manatee species in the world, and most can live in salt and fresh water, or a combination of both (called brackish water). The Amazonian manatee is one that lives entirely in fresh water.
Manatees are herbivores, which means they feed entirely on vegetation in and around the edges of the water — sea grass, hydrilla plants (such as water hyacinth) and some shore plants. I have watched manatees on the Peace River push themselves up several feet out of the water and eat plants such as elephant ears (seems ironic) and iris.
That might sound like diet food, but male manatees can grow to weigh as much as 3,000 pounds and be 13 feet long. (Even at birth, manatees can weigh about 50 pounds.) Perhaps consuming about 10% of their body weight in vegetation daily has something to do with that.
Manatees have no known natural predators — but their actions and travels subject them to other dangers. Of course, boaters take the brunt of the blame for manatee injuries and collision deaths, but other factors pose threats as well.
Being warm-blooded mammals, they (like humans) aren’t fond of the cold and seek warmer water when temperatures plummet. In a natural environment, manatees would be spread out over a larger geographical area, but people have unwittingly interfered with the manatees’ habitat and interrupted their natural instincts.
When humans started building cities and roads and power plants, it created runoffs of warm water that attracted manatees — and deceived the animals into thinking they did not need to go as far south as before to survive. (Manatee Park, located at 10901 Palm Beach Blvd. in Fort Myers — directly across from the FPL power plant off State Road 80 — practically guarantees year-round sightings of manatees, particularly in winter. It’s worth the trip if you’re as fascinated by these creatures as I am.)
One of the reasons for manatee fatalities is because of this colder water, particularly when a hard cold front passes. The lower temperature decreases manatees’ resistance to viruses and potentially fatal diseases.
That being said, vessels do indeed hit manatees, as evidenced by propeller scars and other injuries — such as partially or completely amputated fins or tails — which is why manatee zones were created, restricting boaters’ speed. Lack of knowledge by some boaters is largely to blame. Locks can trap manatees and injure or kill them, too. Also, manatees can ingest pesticides used by people living on canal-front properties.
So, let’s look at how we can help, not hurt, manatees.
If you are a boater, educate yourself about traveling in areas frequented by manatees, and perhaps take a tour with a guide to learn about these creatures.
Boaters need to keep a good eye on the surface of the water and watch for “footprints” — smooth, flat swirls on the surface of the water from manatee movement. Manatees have a large, flat tail to propel themselves through the water. If these footprints are close together, the manatee is close to the surface, probably coming up for breath. The direction of the footprints indicates which way they are headed. Boaters should stay clear and behind their direction of travel.
Oh — and never try to feed them.
According to the Florida Fish and Wild- life Conservation Commission: “If manatees become accustomed to being around people, they can alter their behavior in the wild, perhaps causing them to lose their natural fear of boats and humans, which may make them more susceptible to harm.”
The more educated we are about these creatures, the more we all can continue to enjoy them.
The not-so-gregarious gator
The first thing you need to understand about spotting alligators is that our local waterways here in Southwest Florida are not their favorite habitat. They would rather be away from humans and out of the spotlight as much as possible. The expansion of the living areas for humans has put us closer to these ancient reptiles, and it is up to us to leave them be. Unfortunately, many people feel they have the Tarzanian ability to befriend these creatures, sometimes with disastrous, life-threatening results.
We are warned constantly not to feed alligators. In fact, it’s illegal to do so, and getting caught can mean your getting slammed with a hefty fine and/or jail time.
Worse than that, feeding gators can cause them to lose their natural fear of humans. When that happens, they become very dangerous — to you, your children, your pets and those of your unsuspecting neighbors. So don’t do it.
Better yet, just don’t feed anything wild: gators, animals, birds, whatever. It’s better for both you and for the wildlife. Like the proverbial path to hell, sometimes good intentions result in bad things happening, especially in the outdoors. So, resist the temptation.
Now, back to spotting gators in the wild.
If you travel by boat on the rivers and backwaters of our area — especially the Peace River and the Myakka River — you will be able to see dozens of gators … again, if you know where to look. Since gators are cold-blooded and need warmth from the sun, the place to look is on the sunny side of the riverbank during the winter months when our water is cool.
An alligator will usually sun itself on a mud bank that has deep water next to it. They stay near deep water in case they feel threatened and need to escape. This can happen when a boat approaches. As the boater backs off on the throttle, the pitch changes. The gator senses the change and becomes alert — and more dangerous.
It may seem that alligators sunning on the banks can’t move quickly, but it is documented that they can move for a short distance at up to a respectable 20 miles per hour.
If you’re of a mind to try to mess with a gator, use the buddy system. In Florida, this means you do not have to outrun the gator; you just have to run faster than your buddy. (That’s a joke. Do not try this at home — or in the wild, for that matter.)
When a gator gets startled, it will move into the water quickly, head to the bottom and seek the depth for safety. Gators can stay underwater for a long time — more than an hour. As you approach an area that is likely to have gators, go slow so as not to startle them. Do not approach a gator directly and definitely stay well away — 100 feet is still good for viewing. With the zoom lenses on modern cameras, it’s unnecessary and inadvisable to get closer.
On cool and windy days, look for gators behind brush, such as sawgrass or other vegetation along an inlet out of the wind. Many times, boaters have passed right by gators because they and their passengers are focused only straight ahead. (That’s another thing humans tend to do: look for wildlife only where they think it should be — thus missing seeing it where it really is.) An alligator’s coloring blends in with the background (i.e., dark mud equals dark gator coloring). In the late summer, baby gators emerge and have dark coloring with bright yellow vertical stripes. This lets them blend in with the reeds and grasses on the shore.
If you don’t have a boat, there are guides and tours that will point out gators as well as other forms of Florida wildlife. Just make sure to choose a knowledgeable guide.
There are several great places to see gators by land. Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center off Burnt Store Road in Punta Gorda, and the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel are just a few. There are many more areas where you can view gators from a safe distance. Florida’s own Alligator Alley — also called Everglades Parkway, the 80-mile stretch of I-75 between Naples and Fort Lauderdale that cuts through the Everglades — was so named for the dozens regularly viewed by motorists while driving to or from the east coast.
A final word: Alligators are not pets. They are wild creatures, so give them space. Observing them in their habitat is educational and enjoyable. It’s exhilarating to enjoy the great outdoors, but it’s important that we do it safely.
— Capt. Dennis Kirk and his wife, Nancy, are avid mariners and outdoor enthusiasts currently living in North Port. Since the 1970s, their love of nature in Southwest Florida has allowed them to experience the dream of writing about their travels and adventures of sailing, fishing or flying.
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