Magnificent Manatees: A Service-Learning Project

Andrea McGann Keech

A floating sweet potato? The homeliest mermaid youíve ever seen? Just exactly what was this strange animal, anyway? My third and fourth grade social studies students in Iowa City didnít know what to make of the large gray creatures swimming through the pages of the books Iíd collected. They were curious about what was to come.

We were just beginning a service-learning project last fall with the help of two preservice teachers from the University of Iowa. Service-learning integrates community or school-based service activities with the existing academic curriculum. Areas of involvement for children in lower to middle elementary grades might include intergenerational projects (exchanging pen pal letters with local seniors), helping people in poverty projects (baking bread for a free lunch program), environmental projects (renovating a nature trail), or in-school projects (making kits to welcome new students to the school). The preservice teachers and I had decided on an environmental project: for my third and fourth graders to learn about a wild animal and how human society affects it, and then to get involved as citizens in helping to conserve it.

Throughout this one-semester program, we directed students in academic activities that complemented the social studies and language arts curricula. These activities included writing poetry, making posters about environmental dangers the manatees face, speaking to other classes about our project, and sending ìget wellî cards to the manatees in rehabilitation facilities at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida, for an educational display. We also learned about what individuals, conservation groups, the state of Florida, and the United States government are doing to help preserve the manatees.

During the semester, we devoted one class period of forty minutes each week to our project. The preservice teachers came every Friday to help the third and fourth graders understand, appreciate, and work toward helping the endangered Florida manatees. One resource that we used was the web site for the Save the Manatee Club in Maitland, Florida (see Resources below), which has basic information online as well as items for sale (photos, books, posters, videos, and other products of all sorts). They also run a program in which, for $12.00, a class can ìadoptî one of many manatees that are being monitored by the group and receive classroom materials and ìindividual updates.î Both of my social studies sections voted for their favorite manatee, based on descriptions sent to us by the club. Soon, color photos and personal statistics arrived in the mail about our two adoptees, Phyllis and Success. We received an informative poster and an excellent educatorís guide including fact sheets, trivia, activities, and information about research and tagging programs. We received quarterly reports with newsy notes about the comings and goings of our specific adoptee. How exciting it was to read of the pregnancies and subsequent deliveries of our own adopted manatee mothers! And how sad to read about new boat strikes and the permanent scars they cause, incidents that are all too common.

Tragically, scars are so ubiquitous among manatee populations that they are typically used as a means of identification. The newsletter is clearly labeled ìsensitive information,î since some of the adoptees meet an untimely demise through collisions with motorboats, in which case it is good for the teacher to have a ìheads upî before presenting the news to the class. In that case, the club sends a letter of explanation to classes who have adopted the manatee, and they are given the chance to adopt another. Luckily, such an accident did not befall any of our adopted manatees.

Early in the semester, we read childrenís literature about manatees. We read of the plight of Sam, the ìsea cowî who found himself stuck in a drain pipe; of Chessie, the manatee with twenty-three scars, who traveled all the way from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay; and of J. Rooker, a manatee who was hit by a fast-moving boat, which broke four of his ribs and puncturing his lung. We also read strictly factual accounts of the history and development of this gentle creature, which provided inspiration for the legend of the mermaid. We learned of its real-life kinship to the elephant. The gentle manatee who possesses no natural defense mechanisms asks nothing more than to be left in peace to browse on water hyacinths and playfully chase its companions through the sea grass.

We were saddened to learn the fate of the Stellerís sea cow, relative of the modern manatee. These cold water giants reached lengths of nearly twenty-five feet and weighed several tons. (The modern West Indian manatees living in Florida may reach twelve to thirteen feet and weigh from 1,200 to 3,000 pounds.) From the discovery of the Stellerís sea cow in the Bering Sea in 1741 to the day when every last one had been hunted to extinction took a mere twenty-seven years!

We read the sad statistics and tales of manatees unequipped by evolution to deal with man-made perils such as propeller blades, canal gates, and storm drains. The students took the stories and factual accounts very much to heart. They wanted to do more than adopt the manatees, they wanted to raise funds for a hospital that is dedicated to saving the lives of injured manatees. Notes at the end of our favorite book, J. Rooker, Manatee, told of the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida, where the cost of keeping just one injured manatee alive for one year can run over $30,000! We couldnít raise that much, but we could help.

The preservice teachers and I considered what it would take for the two classes to hold a penny drive, a bake sale, or a pop can collection. When we presented these possible projects to the students, they said a resounding ìYes!î to all three. So we designated November ìManatee Month.î My students were so familiar with manatees by this time that it was difficult for them to realize that not all students knew about these endearing marine mammals. Then it became clear: other children needed to be educated.

Our posters sprang up all over the school. Copies of Sam the Sea Cow were lent to kindergarten classrooms. An enormous glass jar was filled and refilled with pennies (and some nickels, dimes, and quarters, too) earned by students doing chores at home. Pop cans poured in by the score for the five cent deposit they would bring. Finally, in December, we held a bake sale attended by all three-hundred students at our school. When the last manatee-shaped cookie had been sold, we had raised $434.24 to send to the manatee hospital at Lowry Park Zoo!

The students had an opportunity to verify that their hard-earned dollars would be well spent. The family of one of our students enjoyed a winter vacation in Tampa, Florida. They delivered our check in person to the Lowry Park Zoo, toured the hospital and manatee rehabilitation facilities, and returned to Iowa with their home-made video of the Lowry Park Manatee Hospital for all of us to enjoy.

Learning about and caring for a very unusual-looking creature most of us may never see might seem, at first glance, an odd service-learning project for children in land-locked Iowa. Several parents, in fact, came to fall conferences asking to see photos of those strange “sea cows” their children kept talking about. But, as we came to appreciate, all creatures deserve a safe place in this world. We did not want our children and grandchildren to one day ask, “What did a manatee look like?” We did not want our beloved manatees to go the way of the Steller’s sea cow. There were wide smiles on every child’s face and pride shining in their eyes as we watched the video of Lowry Park manatees eating romaine lettuce and carrots. Students felt proud that they had learned a lot and that they had done something to make the world a better place for humans —- and for two of the most beautiful “floating sweet potatoes” on Earth.



1. Educators interested in becoming involved in a service-learning project could contact the social studies department of their nearby college or university or one of the national organizations that are promoting service learning, such as the National Commission on Service-Learning, 1 Michigan Avenue East, Battle Creek, MI 49017. Phone: 616-968-1611.Website: Funding is sometimes available through grants. We received $75.00 to spend on materials from Iowa State Department of Education's Learn and Serve funds (from the federal Corporation for National Service). See also Rahima C. Wade, ed., Building Bridges: Connecting Classrooms and Community through Service-Learning in Social Studies (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 2000).


Andrea McGann Keech is a teacher in the Iowa City and Community School District.

Resources About Manatees

Childrenís Literature

Friesinger, Alison. Friends in Deed: Save the Manatee. Illus. by Jaqueline Rogers. New York: Random House Library, 1998. 72 pp.
The “Friends in Deed,” Jelly, Evan, and Mary Kate, decide to earn money so that they can adopt a manatee named Lucille. Mrs. Sanders, the librarian, takes them on a class trip to the Water Park where they end up swimming in Lucille’s tank! The author learned about manatees at her local library, and she and her children actually did adopt a real manatee named Lucille.


McNulty, Faith. Dancing with Manatees. Illus. by Lena Shiffman. New York: Scholastic, 1999. 40 pp.
A young girl and her brother are lucky enough to go diving with their friend who is a wildlife biologist. When a baby manateeís tail becomes entangled in a fishing line, everyone must help free it. This story is one of the Hello Reader! books, Level 4. Students will enjoy reading for themselves this tale set in Floridaís Crystal River and filled with factual information.


Tate, Suzanne. Mary Manatee: A Tale of Sea Cows. Illus. by James Melvin. Nags Head, NC: Nags Head Art, 1990. 28 pp.
Very basic drawings and simple language make this an appropriate choice for the youngest of readers or listeners. Mary Manatee instructs her young son, Mikey, in both the dangers and pleasures of their aquatic habitat.


Zoehfeld, Kathleen Weidner. Manatee Winter. Illlus. by James Petruccio. New York: Scholastic, 1994. 32 pp.
From the Smithsonian Oceanic Collection, this book
features incredibly realistic drawings that show Little Calf and Mother moving from the chill ocean of the Gulf to warmer spring waters. There is boat traffic to contend with, but mother and child make it safely to their winter feeding grounds.



Amato, Carol A. Chessie the Meandering Manatee. Illus. by David Wenzel. New York: Barronís Educational, 1996. 48 pp.
This Young Readerís Series book includes five chapters and a helpful section with notes for parents and educators. Uncle Phil, a marine biologist, takes Carrie and Ben on a snorkeling expedition to see manatees for themselves at a wildlife refuge. On the way there, he tells them about the true adventure of wandering Chessie, a manatee who traveled more than 2,000 miles along the Atlantic coast.


Corrigan, Patricia. Manatees For Kids. Illus. by John F. McGee. Minocqua, WI: NorthWord, 1996. 47 pp.
The National Wildlife Federation and Ranger Rick sponsor this volume, one of the Wildlife for Kids series. Beautiful color photos and kid-friendly, humorous drawings (manatees serenading sailors and playing follow the leader) make this a favorite choice for young children.


Haley, Jan. J. Rooker, Manatee. Illus. by Paul Brent. Bemidji, MN: Focus Publishing, 1996. 38 pp.
A touching and true story of young J. (for Junior) Rooker (for Rookery Bay) Manatee, the unfortunate victim of a tragic boat strike. The author, a retired teacher, saw the story unfold personally while she was staying insouthwest Florida. As we read this story aloud in class, students were captivated by the suspense, the sadness, and ultimately the triumph of the manatee branded with number 43. In “More About Manatees” endpages, the author provides wonderful details about the Friends of Rookery Bay and the Lowry Park Zoo’s rehabilitation program.


Horn, Gabriel. Gone Forever: Steller’s Sea Cow. New York: Crestwood House, Macmillan, 1989. 49 pp.
Although this book is currently out of print at this time, libraries may have it. The book provides a chilling warning about what happened to the giant sea cows with the hope that modern manatees will not suffer a similar fate.


Jacobs, Francine. Sam the Sea Cow. Illus. by Laura Kelly. New York: Walker, 1992. 48 pp.
A Reading Rainbow Book, this delightful and factual story of Sam, the unfortunate manatee who became wedged in a drain pipe, is an excellent read-aloud choice. Delightful drawings make Sam seem very accessible for children. Students immediately identify with him. Readers and listeners recoil as he is struck in the face by a propeller as a calf, but rejoice as he is finally set free at the storyís end. A nice ìAbout Sea Cowsî section concludes the book.


Lepthien, Emilie U. A New True Book: Manatees. Danbury, CT: Grolier Children, 1991. 48 pp.
This factual and complete volume from the New True Series provides a thorough background for elementary level classroom study. Entries such as where manatees live, what they eat, their land-dwelling relatives, calves, life expectancy, communication, and ways we can protect them provide teachers with answers to even the most perplexing student-generated questions. A wide variety of fine photos supplements the text entries.


Ripple, Jeff. Manatees and Dugongs of the World. Photography by Doug Perrine. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press, 1999. 131 pp.
A teacher resource, this extensive and beautiful work provides detailed information. Photos are large and colorful. Images of all of the worldís sirenia (three types of manatees and the African dugong) are included.


This outstanding site for the nonprofit Save the Manatee Club provides educators with information about adopting manatees for the classroom. Information, books, posters, and videos are also available. The clubís address is 500 N. Maitland Avenue, Maitland, FL 32751. Phone: (800) 432-5646.
Check out the baby update feature about ìLowry,î the first manatee calf born at the Lowry Park Zoo. Mother ìIonaî arrived at the manatee rehabilitation center with punctured lungs, due to collision with a boat hull. Information on the other manatees at Lowry Park is also available. 1101 West Sligh Avenue, Tampa, FL 33604-4756. Phone: (813) 935-8552. E -Mail:

Manatee Protection Tips

If you live in Florida, or vacation there, here are some things that young people can do to help protect manatees. (From

Stash Your Trash!
• Recycle your litter or throw it in a proper trash container. Debris in waterways, such as discarded plastic bags or six-pack holders, is dangerous to manatees and other wildlife.
• Discard monofilament (fishing) line or fishing hooks properly. Not only are they dangerous for manatees, but discarding monofilament line into or onto the waters of the state of Florida is against the law.

Hands Off!
• Resist the urge to feed manatees or give them fresh water. Not everyone loves manatees, and feeding them or giving them water could encourage them to swim to people who might be cruel to them. Their natural feeding patterns may also be altered by encouraging them to “hang around” waiting for food or water. When hand-fed lettuce or water from a hose is no longer available, manatees may not know where to find or identify natural, reliable sources of food.

Manatee Life ... and Death


Manatees are gentle and slow moving. They spend most of their time eating, resting, and in travel. They are completely herbivorous, consuming 10 to 15% of their body weight daily in aquatic vegetation.
Manatees can live for sixty years or more, but like humans, they do not reproduce quickly. A female manatee cannot become a mother until she is five years old. Then a female can give birth to one calf every two to five years; twins are rare. The gestation period is approximately thirteen months, which is longer than that of humans. Mothers nurse their young for many months, and a calf may remain dependent on its mother for up to two years. Thus, if a manatee dies, it will not be quickly replaced.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission counted 3,276 manatees in January of 2001, but 325 animals died during that year, which is 10 percent of the population. Eighty-one fatalities were watercraft related, and seven involved trash, such as ingestion of or entanglement in fishing line, fishing nets, fishing hooks, or litter. (The others died of natural or unknown causes.) Biologists say that the manatee population cannot sustain a mortality rate of 10 percent. Humans will have to try harder to protect the manatee if they are to survive off the coast of Florida.