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Migrating South To Study Manatees

Tiare (center right) steadies a manatee undergoing a health examination after being rescued. Photo courtesy of the MRP.
Tiare (center right) steadies a manatee undergoing a health examination after being rescued. Photo courtesy of the MRP.

By Tiare “TJ” Fridrich, Manatee Biologist

When people learn that I’m originally from Long Island, New York, the first question I’m usually asked is, “How did you get into working with manatees?” It’s no secret that we don’t usually see manatees up that way, and I’d bet that very few people from New York have ever seen a manatee. In fact, I didn’t see my first manatee until I was in my 20’s! Which again prompts the question—how did I get into manatees?

In 2018, I graduated with my Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology from the University of Rhode Island, and over those four years as an undergrad I learned that: a) the cold was not for me; and b) that I was fascinated by tropical marine life. During that time, I had the tremendous opportunity to study abroad in both Australia and Bermuda, where I gained firsthand experience conducting research on coral reefs, mangrove forests, and seagrass beds. I fell in love with these incredible habitats and the countless species that call them their home.

After coming back stateside, I knew that I wanted to continue learning everything I could about the tropical marine environment, and hopefully use that knowledge to improve the way that we conserve and manage these ecosystems. So, following graduation, I moved down to Miami to pursue my Master of Professional Science in Tropical Marine Ecosystem Management at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science—I know, it’s a mouthful! It was there in Miami, during a boating class, that I saw a manatee for the first time. It was a baby manatee resting in the mangroves, having been ’parked’ there by their mother while she was off feeding somewhere in the bay. I had always been fond of manatees, but that day I truly fell in love with them.

I had never dreamed that one day I’d be able to work with manatees. As most marine biologists will tell you, the field of marine mammals is very competitive, to the point where many young scientists are discouraged from following that path. So it wasn’t even on my mind that I could one day study manatees, even when I started focusing my master’s studies on how the State of Florida protects and manages Florida manatees. One of the ways they do this is by working with partner organizations, such as Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute (CMARI), to tag and track manatees throughout Florida. Manatees are fitted with a belt, a flexible tether, and a floating radio-tag that tracks their location via satellite, and researchers can then find and observe them in the wild and record their behaviors. In this way, scientists can learn more about how manatees interact with their environment. For my master’s project, I was able to work with CMARI to analyze their tracking data, record manatee observations in the field, and create maps showing hotspots of manatee activity. It was this work that eventually led me to Save the Manatee Club, where I use my knowledge of manatee biology, marine ecology, and ecosystem management to help conserve manatees and their habitat. I feel incredibly grateful to be in a position where I can advocate for these endearing aquatic mammals that cannot speak for themselves, and to work for such an incredible organization that truly loves manatees.

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