An underwater photo of a manatee and calf.

Photo courtesy of Patrick M. Rose/Save the Manatee Club.

On February 4, I posted an article about exploring Florida’s Everglades via airboat. In the post, I shared my recent experience with Coopertown Airboats (22700 SW 8th St., Miami, 305/226-6048, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, $22 adults, $17 children 7-11), which offers 40-minute airboat tours amid the sawgrass, cattails, marshes, and hammocks of the East Everglades Expansion Area, a proposed addition to Everglades National Park. While I thoroughly enjoyed this educational excursion – during which I spotted several alligators, yellow-bellied slider turtles, and greenback herons, among other fascinating creatures – the article sparked a bit of a controversy in the comments section.

As my fellow blogger Wayne Bernhardson rightly suggested, “The Everglades are more suitable to kayaks and canoes.” He then expressed his concern that “airboats have injured and killed manatees, a highly vulnerable species there.”

At the time, I responded in this way: “Seeing a precious natural area in a non-motorized manner (such as kayaking or canoeing) is ALWAYS preferable to using high-speed boats that can damage flora or maim fauna (especially endangered species like the manatee). Airboats have long been a controversial way to experience the Everglades, but as with zoos, they do provide a mainstream opportunity to educate the public (especially those who aren’t in good enough physical condition to kayak or canoe) about ecology and conservation.” The problem, of course, is that not everyone who visits the Everglades – such as disabled individuals and some senior citizens – would be able to experience this amazing place if airboats were not available.

Nevertheless, I, too, have reservations about using airboats in the Everglades, despite the fact that many of the airboat operators know this region better than some park officials – and that the National Park Service often solicits their assistance in salvaging efforts. Although I suspected, back in February, that manatees tend to prefer saltwater areas and are not prevalent in the regions where airboats frequent, I decided to consult the Save the Manatee Club (500 N. Maitland Ave., Maitland, FL 32751, 407/539-0990 or 800/432-5646) just to be sure.

Founded in 1981 by singer Jimmy Buffett and former U.S. Senator Bob Graham, the Save the Manatee Club (SMC) is a nonprofit and membership-based organization that teaches residents and visitors ways to protect the endangered West Indian manatee, the state’s official marine mammal. After several weeks of “phone tag,” I was finally able to chat with Dr. Katie Tripp, SMC’s Director of Science and Conservation, and in honor of Earth Day, I’d like to share a bit of our conversation.

Specifically, I wanted to know about the potentially negative effects of airboats on manatees in the Everglades. Although Dr. Tripp is “a big proponent of kayaking and slow-motion travel,” she didn’t dismiss airboats altogether. “Airboats are ideal for shallow water,” she said. “They have a narrow draft, which can easily travel across the ‘river of grass.’” Although airboats can “create noise pollution and cause other ecological damage,” she admitted that it all “comes down to where you’re operating.” In other words, even though the impact from a fast-moving airboat or powerboat can be severe for a manatee, airboats typically run in shallow-water areas “where you have a small chance of coming upon manatees.” As Dr. Tripp said, “Manatees don’t want to slog along on their flippers in two inches of water for long distances.”

In general, Dr. Tripp seemed more concerned about programs that allow swimming with wild manatees. She cited, for example, the Crystal River Springs area in central Florida, where tourism “has developed because manatees go there for warmth.”In general, Dr. Tripp seemed more concerned about programs that allow swimming with wild manatees. She cited, for example, the Crystal River Springs area in central Florida, where tourism “has developed because manatees go there for warmth.” Although state law prohibits humans from touching manatees, and SMC believes in a “no-touch policy” at all times, there are often so many boats, people, and manatees in the area that it becomes less an ecotourism experience and more “a petting zoo mentality.” In such warm waters, there could be potentially hundreds of manatees present. Dr. Tripp said that some tourists are horrified by the experience, and she wondered if people are really learning stewardship at all.

After all, there is no cap on the number of tourists that can be in the water at any given time. It could be 10 swimmers or 150 of them, and at such crowded times, the situation can easily get out of control, especially when some of the visitors, who have never before worn wetsuits and might not be good swimmers, often end up kicking the manatees by accident. “The manatees there are wild. They don’t want to play. They just want to get into the sanctuary,” Dr. Tripp lamented, and oftentimes, these gentle creatures choose not to come into the warmer waters at all, as if trying to decide, “Do I want to be aggravated, or do I want to freeze to death?”

The irony of this “circus atmosphere” is that the region is protected by the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, but as Dr. Tripp explained, while the tour operators pay for a refuge permit, there are no regulations stating that the proceeds must be spent, in part, on stewardship. Although manatee welfare is the priority for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – who even went so far as to request that tourists stay away from the area during this recent cold season, in order to give the manatees more space – Dr. Tripp believes that “it needs to be managed better.” She hopes that a middle ground can be found – where tourists can continue to visit the area and walk away as advocates for ecotourism, while not harming the welfare of the endangered manatees. She even suggested extracting fees for educational programs, additional law enforcement, security cameras, and other efforts meant to educate the public and protect the manatees.

Such responsible tourism is just as necessary for airboat operators in the Everglades. While I agree that kayaking is a better form of traveling through this threatened region, I also feel that, as Dr. Tripp has said about the Crystal River Springs area, a compromise can be struck here between environmentalists and recreationists. Since fishing boats and commercial tour operators receive certain exemptions regarding speed laws in the Everglades, it’s important to ensure that you’re choosing an operator who only travels through areas where manatees are less likely to be. To learn more about a given operator without raising any red flags, you can simply call the office ahead of time and ask in the manner of an eager tourist, “Is there any chance that we’ll see manatees on the tour?” An affirmative answer might then lead to other questions.

Taking Dr. Tripp’s advice, I called Coopertown Airboats and asked the pleasant woman who answered if we’d be seeing any manatees on the tour. “There’s no guarantee you won’t see one,” she replied, “but we don’t go into areas where you’re likely to see one.” Well, that’s certainly good to know, and for the record, I didn’t see any manatees on my tour back in January. Of course, many powerboaters have hit marine animals, such as manatees, without realizing it, so it’s always prudent to be aware of potential ecological harms, even when they’re not so obvious.

For more information about the Everglades, consult Everglades National Park (40001 S.R. 9336, Homestead, FL 33034-6733, 305/242-7700, 24 hrs. daily, $10 vehicles, $5 pedestrians and bikers) or the Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce (P.O. Box 130, Everglades City, FL 34139, 239/695-3172).