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Building and Packing

Some people have the nice but misguided belief that manatee research is all just swimming in beautiful clear, blue water watching the manatees eat and play, and occasionally scratching them. Ummm…. no. I wear many hats in this job, most of which I had no idea about when I started many years ago. Plumber, electrician, cartographer, politician, boat mechanic, grant writer, and occasionally… biologist. I almost never see blue water (think chocolate milk filled with crocs and hippos). But I will say I’m never bored. Lately my job has been 100% logistics.

For the past several weeks I’ve been preparing for the next field season in Africa. Planning travel to various field sites, building manatee telemetry equipment, refreshing my memory about GPS tags (since I haven’t worked with them since 2004), buying supplies… everything I’ll need for 6 months of training workshops, surveys, captures, health assessments, tagging and tracking. The amount of cables, datasheets, sample vials, bug spray, and other little things needed is daunting. Bob, I can’t find my frisbee! (For the rest of you, it’s not used for play…)

Manatee tagging equipment is all built by hand. We tag manatees by putting a belt around the tail, which has a nylon tether attaching to a buoy tag that floats behind the manatee. After 4 days of measuring, foam injection, more measuring, gooey marine sealant, pounding, cutting, butane torching, attaching bolts and buckles, heat-shrinking and realizing I glued my flip flop to the floor, the manatee belts are finished and ready to go! They have several nice features: sonic tags that emit a signal underwater so I can hear the manatee with a hydrophone even if it loses the GPS tag, bolts that corrode so the belt will fall off even if we can’t relocate the manatee, and best of all- snazzy new programmable release mechanisms that will (hopefully) pop the belt off the manatee at the end of the study. Thanks Margie and FWC for letting me use your telemetry lab to build these!
Now that I’ve bought and piled up equipment and supplies for weeks, the trick is to get it all in 2 trunks and 2 duffles that each weigh 50 lbs. or less…

On Wednesday I leave the USA for 6 months. I’m headed first to Senegal for 5 weeks, then to Ghana for just over 2 weeks, and then hopefully Gabon for 4 months. I say “hopefully” because there has been a bit of unrest there recently after presidential elections, so I’m hoping it will subside before early November. The plan is to capture several manatees in central Gabon and deploy the first ever GPS tracking tags for the species. Now the fun part begins!

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