A woman has reportedly just turned herself in after pictures surfaced this week of her riding a manatee off Florida. Harassing a manatee in any way is against Florida law, and is a second-degree misdemeanor.
The Florida Manatee Sanctuary Acts states: “It is unlawful for any person at any time, by any means, or in any manner intentionally or negligently to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb or attempt to molest, harass, or disturb any manatee.”
According to news reports, the middle-aged woman was seen riding a manatee, or sea cow, at 1 p.m. Sunday in the water north of Gulf Pier in Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas, which is near Tampa, Florida. (Learn about manatees.)
The woman has been identified in the media as Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez, 52. It is currently unclear whether charges will be pressed, as the state attorney’s office is reportedly looking into the matter. Gutierrez has not been arrested as of this writing.
If convicted, she could face up to 60 days in jail and a fine up to $500. According to media reports, authorities do not believe the manatee was injured in the encounter (though no word on its pride).
The woman reportedly told police that she did not know she had done anything wrong, or that manatees enjoyed legal protection from being approached. Manatees are slow-moving creatures that can be easily caught by swimmers, a fact that has long made them vulnerable to hunters. Today, thanks to legal protections, the biggest threat to manatees is collision by boats and damage to their habitat, especially from coastal development. Manatees often travel quite far inland in brackish and freshwater.
Susan Butler, a manatee expert with the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville, told the Tampa Bay Times, “It’s a wild animal. It’s not something to be ridden. I can’t say that as a biologist I would ever, ever condone that, or say that (the manatee) wanted them to do that.”
Ocean Views has reached out to James Powell, a biologist who studied manatees in the Everglades (with National Geographic support) for comment, but has not heard back yet.
Clearly, the public could use more education about the importance of protecting manatees, as well as all other living things.
In the award-winning documentary Cove, Rick O’Barry stressed that interactions between human beings and wild animals can be beautiful experiences for both species, but they should only occur if the animals initiate the encounter. O’Barry has had wonderful experiences swimming with wild dolphins, but he says in every case they approached him. (He is not a fan of “canned” experiences that pair trained dolphins with tourists–a combination we recently saw can lead to trouble.)
Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.