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Swimming with manatees: Exclusive look at the lengths a researcher will go to save a species

Tracking and releasing manatees at TECO
Jenn Galbraith removed a tracker from a manatee at the TECO manatee viewing center.
Posted at 6:54 AM, Mar 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-03 18:42:18-05

TAMPA, Fla. — The view of manatees at Tampa Electric Big Bend Power Station's discharge canal is best enjoyed from the comfort and safety of the observation deck. But manatee tracker Jenn Galbraith needs to get into the water, and swim, to get her job done.

This swim with the manatees is not open to the public, and Galbraith is the only person cleared by TECO to do it. Hundreds of humps line the canal, fish jump through the air, spinner sharks, bull sharks, and all other forms of marine life congregate in this area for the warmth of the man-made power station.

On the day we met up with Galbraith, she was going out to untag a manatee she's taken care of for more than six years. "Camlee" is a manatee whose story mirrors so many others in the wild as they continue to face pressures from human expansion, habitat loss, boat strikes, water pollution, and lack of seagrass beds.

"She was rescued as an orphan calf; she was about 90 pounds when she was rescued, which is tiny," Galbraith said. "So, we did hand raise her till she was an adult, she was then released and did not do well her initial time out and had to be re-rescued, re-rehabilitated, was re-released. Unfortunately, again, in that time period, she had an encounter with a boat that set her back as far as her behavior. And she did have to have another intervention and go back into a rehab facility."

As temperatures in Tampa Bay plummet to the mid-60s, the outflow from the power plant keeps the water around a comfortable 78 degrees. Manatees know this is the place to relax and warm up. In addition, the power plant offers a once per year opportunity to see most or all of the manatees Galbraith tracks in one place.

"This is not where I'm supposed to be; I'm doing this for a very important reason. And I hold that very dear to my heart that the mission is the most important thing," Galbraith said. "Swimming in this water can be daunting. Now, I always have a safety team with me; that's their job to worry about the sharks and the other things. I'm focused on the job. And once that job is done, I'm out; it isn't a pleasure swim."

Retired U.S. Navy Captain Buddy Harrison volunteers his time to search the waters and guide Galbraith towards tracking the manatees.

"We are looking here from the overlook to try and give her directions, so she doesn't have to swim for an extraordinarily long time," Harrison said. "You see, all the manatees here, they can be stacked up. So she (Camlee) can be under the water and covered by some other manatees."

Galbraith is the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership Coordinator for Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute. Of course, the number changes, but currently, she is tracking 13 tagged manatees in the wild.

In May 2021, ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska first profiled Galbraith's work studying and tracking manatees in the wild. The goal is to watch them, study their behavior, and make sure they can adapt to life after rehabilitation in the wild.

"For everything that we know about wild manatees right now has come from these kinds of tracking projects that we've done for various reasons," Galbraith said. "There are many other types of tracking programs we've done since the beginning of manatee research, and so much of what we know now for them is what we learn from that. So it's very important."

Sadly, months after our report aired, more than 400 additional manatees died in Florida waters. The final, macabre, record-setting year of 2021 ended with 1101 recorded deaths.

Galbraith's first attempt to remove the tracker from Camlee failed. She wasn't able to locate her in the sea of manatees. On this morning, the weather was unseasonably cold. A north wind howled through the air sending the wind chill into the upper 40s. Galbraith dried off, got warm, and then waited to go back in.

It was a busy day at TECO. In between swims, Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park released a manatee that got sick from red tide during Hurricane Elsa. And, Sea World released another manatee that will be the newest one for Galbraith to track, "Keeks."

Galbraith took photos of the scars on the manatee to help identify her in the wild; they measured her size and body mass to get a baseline for how she progresses in the wild. Then, with speed and precision, Galbraith installed the manatee tracker and helped ferry the manatee to the water for release with a dozen other people.

Seconds later, Galbraith was back in the water to accomplish her mission, release Camlee. In no time, she spotted her baby and took off her tracker. The moment was bittersweet.

"It's the first time in six years I don't know where that animal is," Galbraith said. "She's all grown up. So, she did graduate today. Her tag was removed. And now, she is a wild manatee just living her best life. When you remove the tag from a manatee that you've been watching for any amount of period, it's a welling of emotions because you're thrilled for their success; you're a little nervous because there's nothing you can do for them. Now they are entirely on their own."

Human-caused pollution is responsible for the collapse of the Indian River Lagoon's ecosystem. Brown tides persist, wiping out 80% of the natural seagrass beds that manatees rely on.

As the Unusual Mortality Event (UME) continues on Florida's East Coast, officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) are forced to feed hundreds of manatees per day.

With a species in peril, Galbraith said you shouldn't dwell on the negatives; you just have to keep fighting and focus on the positive.

"This is a win, and you take your wins when you can," Galbraith said. "There are so many people working together to help manage these right now. It's the most inspiring thing. So many different organizations, facilities that I work with and around that support each other in making sure that we're making all the right decisions."