Summer Visits Call for More Observer Volunteers

The Blue Spring Manatee Observer Program

Date: September 18, 2018

Now in its third season, the Blue Spring Manatee Observer Program is a collaboration between Blue Spring State Park, Save the Manatee Club, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Sea to Shore Alliance, and Volusia County Environmental Management. The program runs during the summer months from April to November when the park is open for swimming, tubing, snorkeling, kayaking, and scuba diving and sees large numbers of visitors.

Manatee Observer Volunteer Ally Greco
Volunteer Ally Greco covers a manatee shift from the kayak, making sure swimmers keep a safe distance from manatees.

While historically only a few manatees would visit the spring during the summer months, the past couple of years have seen an increase in manatee usage of the spring, resulting in the need to have volunteers assist the park to prevent harassment of manatees during that time.

“I feel like we’re making a difference,” says volunteer Shari Dworkin-Smith, who joined the program this season with her husband Rob. “Not only can we make this a safer place for manatees, but we also get to educate a lot of visitors about proper manatee behavior and answer a lot of questions.”

Elementary school teacher Melissa Landreville agrees. “I educate kids in the classroom on a daily basis, so coming out here was just a natural next step,” she says.

Volunteers attend a mandatory orientation session in early spring to become familiar with proper behavior around manatees, learn manatee basics, and participate in a kayak training session by Debbie Wingfield, who represents Volusia County in the program. Volunteers are then usually scheduled for either morning or afternoon shifts with one volunteer on the kayak and one on the boardwalk. “Park visitors are always thrilled to hear there are manatees in the spring run,” says Monica Ross, who represents Sea to Shore Alliance in the program, “and with the education and guidance from our volunteers on how to pass by the animals without disturbance, visitors have the chance of a lifetime with manatees in the safe haven of Blue Spring.”

Manatee Observer Volunteer Jackie Cheers
Volunteer Jackie Cheers covers a manatee shift from the boardwalk. Over the radio she communicates with the kayak volunteer, letting her know that manatee Cassie is resting under the steps at the swim entrance.

What started as a loosely-organized handful of volunteers has now grown into a group of over 40 volunteers who come from all walks of life. Students, full-time working adults, and retirees are among them. “We are extremely grateful to have such a large number of volunteers,” says Cora Berchem, who represents Save the Manatee Club in the program and schedules the volunteers on a weekly basis. “Our volunteers have put in over 850 hours this summer, which is amazing.”

This summer not only saw the birth of manatee Annie’s fourth calf, but two recently-released manatees learning how to adjust to life in the wild also frequented the park almost daily. In addition, many mother manatees brought in their young to show them the spring, making a volunteer presence ever more important.

“Blue Spring State Park is a very popular place with visitors during the summer months,” says Park Manager Michael Watkins. “We have over 200,000 visitors that come and enjoy the water activities here in the summer time and to have strong support from this great volunteer group is a tremendous help. On behalf of all the park staff, we are very thankful for their dedication and love the Blue Spring Manatee Observer Program.”

Enjoy a short video to learn about the volunteers’ experience as they talk about why they joined the program, what it means to them, and some of the challenges they encounter.

 
If you are interested in joining the Blue Spring Manatee Observer Program, you can sign up with one of the participating agencies and attend an orientation session next spring. To join with Save the Manatee Club, please email Cora Berchem at cberchem@savethemanatee.org