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What's It Like to Fly the Aerial Manatee Count?

Flight Notes from Airborne Ackerman
Manatee population expert Dr. Bruce Ackerman loves to fly. That's been great for the manatees, because he has spent countless days, nights and even weeks since 1991, leading Florida's annual statewide manatee counts. It's great for you too because you're invited to climb inside the plane and experience the aerial manatee count. You'll get a bird's eye view , and Dr. Ackerman will give the inside details of counting manatees from the air. Oh, we almost forgot--did you remember to bring your long underwear, hat, coat, and gloves? (All Photos with the exception of Cessna video photo are Courtesy of FWC ).

Everyone asks, "What's it like to be up in the airplane for the manatee count?"

You've been given clearance to "ride along" in the plane.

Hi Students!

Thanks for all your interest in the Synoptic Manatee Count. I'm glad you want to learn more about the aerial part of the Synoptic Survey.

This shot was taken from over a warm water discharge area, from a higher altitude, and you can see one of the plane's wing supports.

I love to fly! You get such a different and interesting view over the landscape. You get to see many manatees, but also many other kinds of animals and birds -- such as dolphins, alligators, sea turtles, sharks and bald eagles. It is very interesting to see everything from a "bird's eye" perspective. Sometimes, in addition to seeing the topography of the land, you can also see some of the topography of the sea bottom too.

The Plane:
Let's start by taking a look at one of the airplanes we use for the count. We usually use a Cessna 172, which is a standard small airplane with 4 seats. Here's a photo of a Cessna 172. If you want to really get the feel of flying in this plane, I also provided a link so you can watch a movie of flying in one of these planes. Take a look:

Movie of a plane similar to what we fly in

Link to Movie

The inside or "cockpit" of the plane is about the same size as the inside of a very small car (like an old-style Volkswagen beetle). There are no frills (no flight attendant, no bathroom, no walking around, no meals!). During an aerial count, there are 2-4 people in the airplane, including the pilot and usually 1-2 biologists. Sometimes another observer, such as a newspaper reporter, also goes along. It can be quite cramped! (Some of our teams fly in small helicopters too, which can have 1-2 pilots and 1-3 biologists.)

Of course, before you start the engines and take off, it's very important for you to know the layout of your study area (topography), so you don't get lost and are able to direct the pilot where to fly. That way you can stay focused on looking for manatees.

Flying with the Window Open
We often fly with the window of the plane open, so we can see manatees better. In the summer, this is very refreshing, a nice breeze. In the winter, it is cold! Even though our very coldest winter temperature is only 35 to 40 degrees F, there is an 80-mph wind coming in the window, so the wind chill is cold! So cold, in fact, that we bring two coats, long underwear, hat, and gloves (most people in central and south Florida don't even own that stuff!) When it is very cold, we don't open the window except for a few minutes at a time, when there is something important to see.

What Can You See from Fifty Stories Up?

Above Big Bend Power Plant--Can You See the Manatees?
(Click to enlarge)

Our altitude during the aerial counts is usually about 600 feet (180 meters) above the ground/water. This is the length of two football fields, or the height of a 50-story building. Manatees look small from that height, but we are clearly able to distinguish manatees from other species, and adult manatees from first-year calves. We can't see much else about the manatees at that height (not their age or sex, or any other details of scars or markings).

In 2001 through 2003, we put colored flags on 15 manatees each winter, so we can tell certain individuals apart by the colors and symbols on the flags. Then we can calculate what percent of the flagged manatees we are able to see under different weather conditions. Here is a photo of me with a manatee named Tatiana; and photos of two other manatees with the colored flags I mentioned.

Photos of manatee "flags" to identify them from the air

Wearing Headphones and Microphones Just to Hear
It is noisy in the small plane, much noisier than driving in a car. We often have the window open, to see and count the manatees better, so that makes it even noisier. We usually wear headphones, which are like the ones used in a recording studio, and many have microphones too. They make it possible for us to talk to each other, and also protect our hearing. The pilot also has to be able to hear important safety instructions over the radio from the air traffic control tower.

Equipment We Bring
The equipment we take along for the flight and count includes: clipboard, data maps, data forms, counters (you click it with your thumb to automatically count things), polarized sunglasses, headphones, digital camera, and binoculars. And as I said before, in the winter, we add 2 coats, long underwear, hat, and gloves. Occasionally we take pictures of the manatees with cameras or video cameras, and sometimes we use binoculars to look at something particularly unusual, such as a radio-tag attached to the manatee.

How Do We Know When to Go?
How do we pick a date for our survey? We want to choose a day for the statewide survey which is a clear sunny day, just after a very cold period. The best days are after a big cold front, when the night temperatures cool off the water. We know manatees will cluster together during a cold period at the places that have the warmest water, so it makes it easier for us to find them. Then we want a day right afterwards which is clear and sunny, with no wind. At that point, it is starting to warm back up again after the cold front, and the chilly manatees will stay up at the water's surface to bask in the warm sunshine. That's the plan anyway.

To prepare, we can watch those cold fronts approaching Florida about three days in advance, on the weather maps, as they come down from Canada, or eastward from California. I usually look at the Weather Channel, on the TV or on the Internet. Usually the cold fronts bring snow and cold temperatures across the Midwest and the South before they get to Florida. When we see a big one coming, we call all the people and tell them to get ready to fly. [We actually had snow flurries one time, near Melbourne -- cold arctic area collided with warm moist air from the Atlantic!]

Where I live, in St. Petersburg, Florida, those coldest nights will be 35 to 40 degrees F, and the subsequent warmer afternoon might get up to 65 to 70 F. That's cold for us! The water temperatures here will usually be 54 to 60 F.

What Do Manatees Look Like from the Air?

Rice Krispies in Coffee? Or?

Many people wonder "What do manatees look like from an airplane"? The answer depends on a lot of factors. But generally speaking, I've heard scientists say they look like "floating cucumbers", "potatoes", "beavers", or "walruses". There are many ways to describe what they look like. My favorite one is that they look like "Rice Krispies in a cup of coffee." But to me, I just think they look like manatees.

The Challenge of Counting From the Air
Counting manatees from the air is not always easy, and in fact can be very challenging. Manatees can sometimes be hard to spot, and counting them in large groups is pretty difficult. Overall, it definitely takes practice, and over the years I think I've gotten very good at it.

Counting from the Air

(Viewing Tips)

Photo Credit: FWC
Video: Mote Marine Laboratory

Try This! Journaling Questions
Before you read on, talk through these questions first:

1) Looking down from an airplane, can you think of any objects in the water that might be mistaken for a manatee? Think about living things, and non-living things too (both natural and manmade.)

2) If the waters are murky or muddy looking from the airplane, can you think of any other visual way a scientist could still know that a manatee is there? What other signs would he look for?

What to Look For from the Airplane
One of the first challenges in counting manatees from the air it that you have to be able to distinguish manatees from other similar-looking things in the water -- dolphins, rays, sea turtles, sharks, logs, and man-made objects in the water (underwater tires, pipes, cement pilings) -- all those things can sometimes look similar to a manatee.

Another challenge is that our view of manatees is obscured sometime. When manatees are in clear water and at the surface, they are easily visible to the naked eye from 600 feet up. But more often, they are somewhat obscured from our view -- perhaps they are down below the surface of the water, or partially blocked from view, such as under a dock or an overhanging tree.That makes it really hard. Polarized sunglasses help us to see them when they are down under the water, by cutting down on the glare on the water's surface. But sometimes, the wind disrupts the water surface too. Take a look at this video of how wind and waves can impact the visibility beneath the water surface:

Look What the Wind Can Do


How Does a Manatee Leave a "Footprint"?
Manatees are easiest to spot when they are doing something or when they are in clear water. When manatees are swimming along, they leave a distinctive mark on the surface of the water. Their tail (fluke) goes up and down when they are swimming, and every time it goes up, it leaves sort of a swirl on the surface of the water. We call it a "footprint", since they are left behind the manatee as it travels along, but of course it really is not really like a footprint at all.

Manatee "Footprint"
(Click image for a closer look)

Credit: USGS-Sirenia

The "footprints" are visible even when the manatee is not visible because it is down under the surface of muddy water. Sometimes the location of the manatee can be tracked along clearly, without ever seeing it.

What Does a Mudplume Tell You?
Manatees that are feeding on sea grass often create a cloud of mud by pulling up grass stalks and stirring up the bottom. We call this a "mud plume", and when there is a slight tidal current, this plume is clearly visible downstream of the manatee.

Manatees from the air--photo on right shows "mud plumes"

More About Other Aerial Surveys
We conduct other types of aerial surveys such as distributional and power plant surveys.

Instructional Strategy Spotlight: ListMaker Activity
What do the manatees look like to you from up in the air? Airborne's Ackerman's favorite description was that they looked a little like Rice Krispies in coffee. But we bet you can come up with some other descriptions. What do the manatees look like to you? Brainstorm a list of all the things you can think of that manatees might look like to you from an airplane.

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