‘Without our volunteers we don’t have a program:’ The people behind manatee research

Volusia County Environmental Management relies on volunteers to understand manatee behavior

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. – For the past few months, we’ve been reporting on the crisis involving Florida’s coastal manatees.

They’re dying at a record rate and experts say it’s from boat strikes, entanglement and a lack of food.

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But there’s something you can do to help, and it doesn’t require more than looking out for them.

The Volusia County Manatee Watch program teaches volunteers what to look for.

We rode along with this week’s Getting Results Award winner as she showed us how it’s done.

This month, volunteers packed the event space at the Sandra Stetson Aquatic Center in DeLand. That’s where Volusia County Environmental Management held their annual Manatee Watch Program training sessions.

Debbie Wright, Manatee Protection Program manager, said she relies on volunteers to collect data that will help experts better understand how manatees are utilizing the waterways.

“We started this program in 2005 and every year we train new volunteers,” Wright said. “They submit data which lets us know what they’re doing, where they’re finding food, where they go to nurse their young and other behaviors.”

Dozens took part in a two-hour session where they learned how to identify, photograph and assess manatee health. Once trained, volunteers are asked to submit reports with their findings.

“It definitely helps to have access to the waterways,” Wright said. “But it doesn’t need to be a daily thing. So if you happen to go kayaking from time to time or go out on a boat or a fishing pier, you can get the data we need.”

Danielle Weigel has plenty of opportunities to spot manatees. Weigel captains a eco-tour boat in Ponce Inlet and has been sending back reports for about three years.

“It’s all about making a difference,” she said, from behind the wheel of a center console boat. “It’s really neat and it’s a privilege to be a part of something like this.”

Weigel works on the water all day but often goes out after work to relax.

“We’ll come out, we’ll look for manatees, we’ll look for trash. Anything that’s out of the ordinary,” she said.

Weigel made her way through the Halifax River describing what she looks for.

“We joke around and say it looks like a big potato on the water,” she laughed. “We look for the manatee footprint. That’s the tail paddle and the imprint it makes under the water. It’s a big flat spot.”

She points out that with temperatures in the 50s, it would be unlikely to see one.

“It’s a beautiful day but it’s chilly,” she said. “No manatees today, but that’s a good day. No news when the water temps are like this is good news.”

Wright says Weigel is one of the more active volunteers, turning in more reports than just about anyone.

“She just embodies habitat conservation and marine mammal care,” Wright said, adding that Weigel also volunteers for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Seaworld’s Rescue program and the HUBS Seaworld Rescue Institute. “She’s a key person on our team. Incredibly helpful for us and the animals.”

“They might call me a little overcautious,” Weigel laughed. “I don’t ever want anything to slip by me that could have made a difference.”

Volunteers are asked to be passive observers only and not pursue, approach or interact in any way with manatees. They fill out a manatee sighting report, which may include photos and a scar sheet that depicts where the scars are on the animal.

“This program is all volunteer-run,” Wright said. “Without our volunteers we don’t have a program.”

Volusia County Environmental Management doesn’t have a date set for the next training session but to be added to the waiting list for future classes, email manateewatch@volusia.org.


About the Author:

Paul is a Florida native who graduated from the University of Central Florida. As a multimedia journalist, Paul enjoys profiling the people and places that make Central Florida unique.