It Like to Fly the Aerial Manatee Count?
Notes from Airborne Ackerman
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
asks, "What's it like to be up in the airplane for the manatee
You've been given clearance to "ride along" in the plane.
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
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
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:
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
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
Can You See from Fifty Stories Up?
Big Bend Power Plant--Can You See the Manatees?
(Click to enlarge)
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
of manatee "flags" to identify them from the air
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.
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.
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.
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.
Do Manatees Look Like from the Air?
Rice Krispies in Coffee? Or?
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
(Click image for a closer look)
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.
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.
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
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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