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Manatee spotters are on the lookout at South Florida work sites

If a manatee strays too close to dredging crews, a spotter can shut down work in South Florida's waterways. It's an odd job, and slow — a lot like a sea cow.

July 20, 2012|By Robert Nolin, Sun Sentinel
  • Manatees are endangered and regulations in Florida and at the federal level require spotters to monitor in waterways and watch for manatees that stray too close to work sites.
Manatees are endangered and regulations in Florida and at the federal level… (Gary Coronado, Associated…)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — As unusual professions go, this one's gotta rank among the oddest. Practitioners work 12-hour shifts, six days a week while basting in sunscreen. Their singular mission: detect and identify one of South Florida's unique residents, the roly-poly sea cow.

They are manatee observers, and can be found wherever maritime work might affect the gentle herbivores.

Trish Bargo is one such spotter, required by state and federal guidelines to scan South Florida's waterways, from Boynton Beach to Biscayne Bay, in case an endangered herbivore strays too close to a work site.

"I sit and observe while they're dredging," the 43-year-old Army veteran said. "If a manatee does approach, everything shuts down immediately and they wait until it passes."

Bargo's current assignment is to stand watch aboard a clanky steel barge while a crew dredges berths off Port Everglades, the busy coastal waterway within the cities of Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Danie Beach.

Next month the operation will move to the nearby Dania Cutoff Canal to deepen that waterway. The project is intended to open the canal to massive mega-yachts so they can access — and spend mega-bucks at — specialty marinas inland.

Standard industry pay for an observer is $160 to $170 a day. Typically, observers live on barges offshore, for three to four weeks at a time, when large dredging operations run 24 hours a day. Bargo spends about half her year offshore.

But this is a rare daylight gig. Perched on the excavator, Bargo slathers on sunscreen, listens to classic rock or reggae on her iPod, and reads during breaks when weather or balky machinery forces the dredging to stop. She scans the water surface for a nose, tail or rippling wake, but actual manatee sightings are rare.

"I'm always focused on the water, and yes, it can get boring," she said.

Long hours of boredom were rewarded one day recently last week when the object of her vigil appeared: a big snuffling manatee.

"He popped right up about 50 yards from the dredge," she said. "He came up and gave us a little tail flick and disappeared. We stopped work for 10 minutes."

Bargo, who runs East Coast Observers, a Norfolk, Va., company that provides spotters for maritime projects, is certified as an independently contracted manatee observer by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Waterway projects such as bridge work, dredging or boat races are reviewed by state and local officials and, if they may affect manatees, must have a spotter present.

Should a manatee approach within 50 feet, the job must be shut down and may not be resumed until the sea cow moves beyond the prohibited radius or 30 minutes has passed.

The slow-moving sea cows are vulnerable to heavy equipment like the unforgiving dredging buckets that bite huge chunks out of the bottom. The chunky mammals can swim upside down or vertically, roll and do somersaults, but aren't quick enough to dodge boats or machinery.

"If that bucket goes in on top of a manatee, the chances are pretty good it's not going to survive," said Bargo, who's never seen a dredge injure a manatee.

Folks react with favorable surprise upon hearing Bargo's profession.

"A lot of people think it's just wonderful and glamorous," she said. If glamour can be measured atop a noisy, fume-spewing, open-air barge.

Observers must have a general biology or related degree, or sufficient experience, to be certified. Most of the ones in Bargo's company are fresh out of college.

Work crews of years past were initially less than welcoming to folks who could shut down a job because a manatee shows up. Now, Bargo said, "We all have a lot of respect for each other."

Manatees aren't the only waterborne curiosities South Florida has to offer. "The boats that we see are just entertaining enough," Bargo said. "I see really, really fancy boats."

rnolin@tribune.com

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