Fourth-grader Emma Eisemann hangs over the side of an inflatable canoe while parents Marie and Francis hold on tight to keep her from falling overboard.
The Eisemann family drove all the way from Quebec, Canada, to Florida to visit state parks and learn about Florida wildlife this winter.
On Thursday, they made a stop at Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland to learn about the "sea cows" in their natural habitat as they seek out and gather in local springs to avoid the cold water as temperatures drop.
Emma, 9, would hang over the side to sneak peeks of the gentle manatee.
"I love seeing the manatees so close from the canoe and with my snorkel," Emma said. "We even had the chance to swim with a baby in the swimming area."
Other visitors from Pennsylvania, Illinois and Washington state were kayaking among about nine manatees while folks from New Zealand watched the creatures from the boardwalk lookout.
The manatee will be swimming up and down the channel from the Suwannee River into the Manatee Springs swimming area throughout the winter.
One adult manatee had two 3-foot-long scars on its back from a run-in with a motor boat. Several swam along with infant and half-grown calves alongside. Those scars reveal the reality that manatees are in danger.
Manatees have had the highest death rate on record this year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which has released a new report revealing that 1,003 sea cows died in Florida from Jan. 1 to Nov. 12. To put that in perspective, just seven manatee deaths were reported in 1974.
Even last year, reported deaths totaled 637, with a plurality occurring in Brevard County (173) and zero reported in Alachua and Levy counties.
One perinatal death of a manatee occured in Gilchrist County in 2020. A perinatal manatee death is defined by the FWC as "manatees less than or equal to 150 cm (5 feet) in total length which were not determined to have died due to human-related causes."
According to the 2020 FWC annual report on manatee, they face a variety of threats "both natural and human-related."
"Manatees may die from exposure to harmful algal blooms (red tide), the effects of cold weather, and disease," the report said. "Human-related causes of death include collisions with watercraft, crushing in water control gates and boat locks, and entanglement in fishing gear."
A March National Geographic story reported on scientists grappling with why more Florida manatees had died in January and February of 2021 than in almost all of 2020.
An algae super bloom which covers waters and blocks the sun from reaching waterway bottoms and preventing sea grass from growing was one of the answers.
On Thursday the FWC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a coordinated effort to protect manatees and address the "unusual mortality event" (UME) happening along Florida's Atlantic coast.
"Responding to the UME requires the joint efforts of numerous federal, state and private partners including the Service, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, St. Johns River Water Management District, Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, Brevard County, and Florida Power and Light," the agencies said in a joint statement. "Researchers have attributed the UME to starvation due to the lack of forage in the Indian River Lagoon. Historically, the lagoon has provided essential habitat to manatees year-round, and during the colder winter months many manatees depend on warm water refuges in this area."
The Save the Manatee Club, which former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham founded in 1981, was established to protect manatees and their habitat. It raises funds for rescue efforts and also uses social media to educate the public about manatee behavior and how to help in the effort to save them.
The organization notifies the public of manatee news such as a 186 head count of manatees at Blue Springs State Park on Nov. 17.
The organization also spells out rules for viewing manatee in the wild.
"You can look, but please don't touch, chase, feed or give manatees water," the organization advises.
If you visit Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland, you can view manatees from the boardwalk and banks of the springs. There is no longer a canoe outfitter renting out crafts, so visitors should bring their own to float near the gentle creatures.
Visitors have been posting their experiences on Facebook by tagging the park.
To see manatees from the comfort of your home, just visit the underwater webcams at Blue Spring State Park and Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.