It is estimated that tens of thousands of people are drawn to Florida waters each year simply to see manatees.
- Wayne Hartley records manatee headcount at Blue Springs State Park
- Hartley spent almost 30 years as park ranger
- He came back to volunteer, help the park's manatees
They are Florida's gentle giants, with a giant among them at Blue Springs State Park.
Wayne Hartley spends most mornings in a canoe at Blue Springs State Park, taking a headcount of the day's manatee population.
It is part of research and observations that are helping the manatee population survive and thrives.
It was a passion that started as a boy, living in Texas.
"My grandmother gave me a wildlife book," Hartley said. "I saw this picture of a manatee and I couldn't believe an animal like that existed in my country."
Hartley would spend nearly 30 years as a park ranger at Blue Springs State Park, where he continues his work now as a member of Save the Manatee, a non-profit organization founded in 1981 by singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett and former Gov. Bob Graham.
Hartley knows most of the manatees by name and by the scars that pepper their bodies.
"When you look at the statistics, roughly 25 percent are killed by boats, that we know," Hartley said. "If you eliminated unknown deaths, almost 50 percent are killed by boats. It's the one thing we should be able to do something about."
Through research and efforts of those like Wayne Hartley, people are learning more about manatees, their habitats and how to protect them. (Spectrum News 13)
"If there is enough environment for them to survive, such a big animal, the environment must be doing well," Hartley said. "Right now, I feel like the environment and the manatees are moving toward one another. We're destroying environment and the manatees are growing, and at one point we're going to meet."
During his morning head counts, Hartley keeps tabs not only on the manatees, but on the water in which they live.
Hartley says temperature is crucial for manatee survival. Water temperatures nearing or below 63 degrees can be dangerous.
His most critical research started as a curiosity to figure out the extent of dark water intrusion, or cold river water. He started keeping a log of water temperatures over time and where the cold water was intruding in the blue springs. They are observations that advanced insight for researchers around the world by decades.
"They couldn't believe I was doing that," Hartley said. "They claimed it put them 30 years ahead in their study. I became a great hero."
Hartley says he does not do the job for recognition, but only to fuel his passion to help protect Florida's gentle giants.
"As long as I can roll the canoe over, I'll stay here," Hartley said. "If the manatees stay, I'll stay."