Published On: Thu, Nov 5th, 2020

Manatee Lagoon provides unique learning opportunities during COVID-19

The gates to the Manatee Lagoon parking lot are closed. There are four vehicles parked inside, but nobody is walking to and from the building. The inside lights for the gift store are out, and the balcony to view the water is empty. No tourists asking questions or school groups in the classroom. The online manatee cam is unstirring.

Come mid-November, speed limit signs along the water go into effect along with the no-wake zone in front of Manatee Lagoon. And as the water cools in the surrounding areas, manatees migrate to Florida, beginning Manatee Season. Discharge water from the nearby Next Generation Clean Energy Center comes out 10 to 15 degrees warmer than when it went in, Kylea Perrin, a biology major at FAU and “Manatee Master” at Manatee Lagoon noted. She says that they joke that manatees are the original snowbirds.

Image provided by Florida Power & Light Company

“When it does get really cold in Florida and the manatees don’t have anywhere else to go they will either go to natural places like springs or they will come to Manatee Lagoon,” Perrin says.

Manatees have a low metabolic rate and can have as little as 10% body fat.

“68 degrees Fahrenheit is critical for them and they can’t survive under that, at least for very long… if it’s 68 everywhere else it’s 78 in Manatee Lagoon,” Perrin continues.

At Manatee Lagoon, they are warm, safe from boats, and if they are sick or injured the organization has the means to get them the help they require.

For decades, Florida Manatees sought out warm water produced by Florida Power and Light’s energy center, and locals would gather in the parking lot to see them. In 2014, FPL opened the revamped Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center, and that same year FPL also revealed plans to build an FPL Eco-Discovery Center, which is now Manatee Lagoon.  

What began as locals gathered in an empty lot trying to catch a glimpse of a manatee, turned into an education center that strives to inspire the community to learn about wildlife and protect Florida’s environment. After opening its doors in 2016 Manatee Lagoon became a popular destination for a wide variety of people and has since continued to grow.

“Maybe [we would] have a tour here and there, but we have really built on [our] programming since,” spokesperson for Manatee Lagoon Brittany DiLoreto said about their initial opening.

People visit from all over the country, even internationally, and often have never seen a manatee before. Prior to COVID-19, they offered yoga, a series of lectures, movie nights, a back to school event, an annual Manatee Fest, and featured exhibits to keep repeat visitors engaged.

Although Manatee Lagoon is currently closed to the public due to COVID-19 the staff have not only persevered in their mission but continued to develop their programming through virtual learning. They partnered with Loggerhead Marinelife Center, Lion Country Safari, the Museum of Discovery and Science, and Zoo Miami to produce their Wild About Wildlife virtual summer camp. The summer camp had thousands of registrants and was an opportunity for Manatee Lagoon to develop new relationships with other local wildlife and educational centers.

“We were all in the same boat,” DiLoreto stated. “We were all really trying to continue to educate the public…about all the great work we do with wildlife and the environment.”

Manatee Lagoon also recently launched their Marine Science Series, which will run through December 18, teaming up with the Reef Institute. The series is for 5th grade students and is aligned with Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. The live lessons are led by an educator from either Manatee Lagoon or the Reef institute. There are two Manatee Masters assigned to teaching the series and DiLoreto says that the Manatee Lagoon classroom has been turned into a studio. Although virtual learning does pose many obstacles she was glad to see how well the Manatee masters have adapted and how all these organizations have come “together during this challenging time to…offer something for the greater good of the community.”  

Manatee Lagoon also has a series of educational videos supplemented with worksheets and at-home activities, which have been created on an ongoing basis since the facility closed its doors to the public. The series is filmed by the Manatee Masters at home.

Then of course there is always the Manatee Cam. While it is quiet right now, when the waters cool the Manatees will come, with December and January generally being the densest. During Manatee season the Manatee Masters take count twice a day. Perrin says that since she’s been working there the greatest number they have counted was close to six hundred. Using Manatee Lagoon’s Manatee Cam you can watch them from the comfort of your own home.

Not only has their expansion further into the online world during COVID-19 created new partnership opportunities, it has also allowed them to reach a wider audience.

“Being open to the public [we] would only get people visiting the area, but now we can reach people from their homes all the way across the U.S.,” Perrin says. Perrin was impressed with the interaction the students had not only with the hosts, but with each other during the Wild about Wildlife summer camp.

One event coming up is their annual Manatee Fest, marking the 5th anniversary of Manatee Lagoon this February. The event is traditionally an in-person free event. Multiple community partners and environmental groups set up tents and provide activities for participants. Last year participants could make an environmental pledge and even take pictures at a selfie-station. In 2021, Manatee Lagoon plans to continue that tradition virtually.

“We are in the beginning stages of planning it…but we definitely still want to celebrate our anniversary and give the community the opportunity to experience that right from home in a safe way,” DiLoreto says. They will be announcing the details for that in the next couple of months on their website.

Currently, there is no set date for their opening, but they are following COVID-19 developments closely and will continue to keep us posted. 

And even after they open to the public, online learning is here to stay, DiLoreto says. 

“[We] are super excited for the day that we can open our doors to the public in a safe way…when we do reopen we will definitely continue the virtual learning opportunities just seeing how many people we have reached outside of this immediate area…we are going to keep the virtual programming, I think it’s been a huge success,” DiLoreto commented. “In the next couple of months we will be launching some new virtual opportunities, we hope to do virtual tours of the center, and are open to any and all possibilities, so we will definitely be doing it long-term.”

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