TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The Gasparilla Invasion of Pirates involves a lot of fun for families and a lot of planning from many organizations. One, in particular, is more of a stealth operation that is often overlooked, protecting the manatees during the invasion of thousands of boats.
The planning for this begins well in advance of the actual parade. Six months out, the Manatee Watch Program has to officially submit its plan to the US Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. Larry Schmaltz with the program explains that after it is accepted, there are regular meetings with everyone involved.
About a month out, a licensed captain goes out every weekend to scope out the entire course and keep tabs on any manatees in the area.
On the day of the parade, the program kicks into high gear with designated watchers on boats, the convention center, and high in the sky from Eagle 8 HD. This year, Erin Schulz with Zoo Tampa has the important job of riding in WFLA’s helicopter to watch and alert for any sighted manatees.
She’s very excited but is also passionate about protecting the manatees.
“Unfortunately manatees don’t have any natural predators so humans are one of their biggest predators. At Zoo Tampa, we see a lot of them come in from boat strikes and entanglements so I think it’s important for us to take responsibility because we’re in their home, they live in the ocean and we’re just having fun on it,” Schulz said.
In the event that a manatee is spotted along the route of the invasion on the day of the parade, a number of teams mobilize quickly to protect the manatee.
Larry Schmaltz rides on the boat behind the Jose Gaspar and explained the procedure, “We notify the Coast Guard Auxiliary, they close in immediately with law enforcement and corner off that area so no private boats can go in there and then we may have to re-route the entire flotilla.”
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While that sounds like a big deal, there is some good news this year: the cold weather! This drives the manatees far south to warmer waters or up near power plant discharges. The water temperatures are quite chilly, well into the 60s with even cold weather on the way, this as a result should keep most of the manatees out of the area.
In fact, Larry said their licensed captain hasn’t seen any manatees for the last two weekends.