As a Research Scientist for the Sea to Shore Alliance, native Floridian Monica Ross studies behavior and habitat use of manatees in our area. Her current research focuses on the movement of manatees in Florida and along the east coast of the U.S., with specific focus on spring use during the winter within the St. Johns River.

Tell us about your research in the St. Johns River.

We know very little about how manatees are using certain springs within the lower portion of the St. Johns River during winter and if these springs are sustainable for a manatee to survive throughout a winter season. We want to find out how many manatees are using the springs from year to year, where their primary feeding areas are and then where they migrate to during the summer, to other parts of Florida or up the east coast?

What is unique about the wildlife at the mouth of the St. Johns?

It provides a really good food source for dolphins and turtles. For manatees, it is an entrance way to a great freshwater system with ample amounts of vegetation to feed upon, protected areas from the wind for resting and shallow water for calving.

How did you get into the field of marine science?

I was the product of the “I want to be a dolphin trainer” craze. As I got older and further along in my studies, I realized I really wanted to focus on dolphin cognition and how they communicate and learn from each other. Right out of college, that’s exactly what I got a chance to do – at Disney World. Eventually I changed my focus to manatees, and I took that same concept and tried to find out how manatees are learning and teaching each other. Manatees are excellent at navigating the waterways – they return to locations hundreds of miles apart from each other after only being shown how to get there once from their mother, yet they have poor eyesight. But they do have the ability to pick up sensory data through their hair and identify changes in the water, skills we do not possess.

Is there anything that residents can do to support the health of the manatee population in the St. Johns?

It boils down to some really simple things. If you’re out on the water, especially in shallow waters, just slow down to reduce the injuries to manatees. Wear polarized sunglasses and keep your eyes on the water when driving your boat.  They are very easy to spot if you use the right tools. Try not to cut up the seagrass and pick up any trash you see on the bank or floating in the water. When you fish, don’t leave your fishing line or lures behind. What ends up on the bottom of the river mixes in with the food they eat. Ingestion of foreign debris is a big threat. Basically try to leave the water environment better than the way that you found it. Any degradation of their habitat can be a problem; that’s why the springs of the St. Johns are so important. We cannot lose these precious resources. Also, you don’t want to impact a manatee’s behavior by feeding it. In fact, most people do not know that it is illegal to water or feed manatees. If you do see an animal in distress, call the Florida Wildlife Commission Wildlife Alert Program hotline at 888-404-3922. Remember: Where we play is where they live!