SOUTH TAMPA — Mary James, a coordinator of the Manatee Watch Plan, said the Jan. 25 Gasparilla marine parade is always an exciting time for thousands of spectators. Yet, it’s a nerve-racking time for volunteers trying to protect the vulnerable marine life.
James, of South Tampa, works as a senior project scientist for The Ash Group Inc., and said she will be one of the observers, or “manatee spotters,” on watch boats. The boats will display signs reading, “Slow,” “Manatee Watch” and “No Wake/Idle Speed.” Spotters in at least five boats will patrol assigned areas.
“The Ashe Group has been doing the watch for 10 years now and we have never had any manatee injuries,” James said.
The Gasparilla Invasion annual marine parade is sponsored by the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, or KMKG.
The Ash Group Inc. and KMKG are coordinating the Manatee Watch program for the marine parade, which begins at the Ballast Point Pier and ends at the Tampa Convention Center.
“Manatees are protected species that are present in Tampa Bay,” James said, adding manatees are especially drawn to the warm water outfalls from the TECO power plant in Apollo Beach during the winter months. “The Gasparilla Invasion involves a lot of vessels in a small area. We are there to promote awareness and help promote the no wake/idle speed zone established by the U.S. Coast Guard.”
The Coast Guard established the special regulation from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on the day of the marine parade.
In addition to protecting manatees, volunteers also help to save dolphins and other marine life, which are protected by the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
James said it’s unlawful to “annoy, molest, harass or disturb” protected species. Boaters and others are asked to remain a safe distance away from manatees — a minimum of 50 feet.
Although the parade begins at 11:30 a.m., a meeting of the watch program will take place at 8 a.m. at Davis Islands Boat Ramp.
James said volunteers also will search for manatees from a helicopter, relaying any sightings to people in the boats.
“If there was a manatee in the path of the boat parade, we would divert the parade or halt the parade until the manatee is out of the area,” she said.
The no wake/idle speed zone will be strictly enforced by local, state and federal law enforcement and includes all waters of Hillsborough County and its tributaries north of a line drawn along latitude 275.30N — approximately from Gadsden Park to E.G. Simmons Park. The zone includes the Hillsborough River south of the J.F. Kennedy Bridge and surrounding channels.
James said any volunteers with additional boats can call her at (813) 290-8899.