PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Save The Manatee Club is working to train local volunteers in the Tampa Bay area to protect Florida’s treasured marine mammal.
The volunteers will be stationed at Fort De Soto Park, where there have been reports of manatee harassment.
“So there are quite a few manatees that visit the park in the summertime, especially around the fishing pier over here, so there have been some issues with human and manatee interactions and some harassment,” said Manatee Research and Multimedia Specialist Cora Berchem with Save The Manatee Club. “So the park had contacted us at Save the Manatee Club and asked us if maybe we had some volunteers to help the park, especially on really busy weekends and holidays over the summer.”
Berchem said most of the harassment is unintentional, with people getting too close to manatees, but did mention a previous instance from years ago when a woman rode a manatee and posted a video of the harassment online.
She has been working to train volunteers to get them out to start educating the public on the Gulf pier and the nearby beach.
“So they’re going to be out there keeping an eye out for manatees, and if they do see people getting too close to the animals or harassing the manatees, they have the ability to step in, educate the people, letting them know nicely that they should be stepping back,” Berchem said. “We’re really trying to educate the public. We don’t want to have someone out there yelling at people…but we’re really trying to spread the word so people can learn about manatees.”
Berchem said that, as a lot of people who visit Florida and Fort De Soto Park have never seen a manatee before, these volunteers will be a good resource for education and to answer any questions folks may have.
Save The Manatee Club and Fort De Soto Park are looking to have the manatee observer volunteer program run from April through November.
Volunteers will be out on the pier and the beach in three-hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays to begin.
The club has a similar program in its third season at Blue Springs State Park in Volusia County.
Berchem said it’s always been her goal to bring that program to other areas of Florida. It’s the first time Save the Manatee Club has worked with a park in the Tampa Bay area.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, they received two calls through their dispatch center in the past six months from people reporting individuals touching or harassing manatees in the park.
FWC confirmed one call was from March 2019 and the other was from May 2019.
“The FWC is asking for the public’s help to report sick, injured or dead manatees to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922 and reminds people who may come across a manatee to give it space and do not attempt to touch or push a stranded manatee into deeper water. Call the FWC to report it and follow any instructions given by FWC staff member,” FWC said in an email.
If you’re interested in volunteering, you can reach out to Berchem via email at email@example.com or visit the Save the Manatee Club’s Facebook page.