A Manatee Love Affair
March 20th, 2019 by Pamela A. Keene

Cora Berchem watches over Annie and her calf as part of the Blue Spring Manatee Observer Program, which helps prevent harassment of manatees at the park in the summer.
Photo by Heather Murphy

Curiosity leads filmmaker to her life’s true calling

It was love at first sight for Cora Berchem. Growing up in Germany, Cora was always interested in the environment and marine biology. But when it came time to attend university, she choose communications and film. That brought her to New York City in 2002, where she pursued a career in media production.

“After a time, I realized that this was not the direction I wanted my life to go,” Cora says. “In 2011, I was chosen to work on a show that took me to Miami. That’s when I saw my first manatee. It was a plush manatee. I really didn’t know what it was, but I was fascinated. I did some research and soon adopted a manatee through Save the Manatee Club. But that was just the beginning.”

When Cora returned to New York, her curiosity led to a documentary about the lumbering giants, produced by Correll Productions.

“The film included some of the organizations involved in manatee protection, rescue, rehabilitation, release and public education,” she says. “It resulted in an 80-minute film that covered many aspects of manatee education, protection and conservation. As part of my work, I stayed in touch with staff from Save the Manatee Club.”

“Before It’s Too Late: The Manatee Documentary” is still viewable on YouTube. It opened the door to an invitation from Executive Director Patrick Rose of Save the Manatee Club, who was looking for assistance with live webcams at Blue Spring State Park.

“The purpose of the webcams was to educate people about the manatees that make their winter home in Blue Spring State Park,” Cora says. “I read everything about manatees that I could get my hands on and came to Florida in early 2014—January to March, the peak season—and jumped right in.”

She assisted with the webcam project, helped produce several public service announcements and continued contracting with Save the Manatee Club until she joined the staff in January 2015 as its multimedia specialist. Cora moved to Florida and is now immersed in all things manatee. She manages social media for Save the Manatee Club, produces educational videos, and participates in manatee outreach and rescue work.

When not at work, Cora travels to state and national parks across the country, scuba diving, hiking and camping. She’s also an avid photographer.

“One of my favorite parts of the job is being involved in manatee research,” she says. “Every morning during the time they’re in Blue Spring, I go out with SMC’s Manatee Specialist Wayne Hartley and assist with identifying the individual manatees there. We can identify them from their scars. It’s a sad thing that this is what we’re using to do our research.”

Wayne submits his scar sketches, pictures and genealogies to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Sirenia Project in Gainesville. The USGS maintains the Manatee Individual Photoidentification System, which includes more than 4,600 manatees statewide. The project’s scientific data on animal movements and critical habitat helps manatee conservation work.

According to the most recent synoptic survey by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are about 6,000 manatees in the wild. Threats to their survival seem to be increasing.

“Manatees can have a lifespan of 50 to 60 years, but because they live in areas where humans are active, their lives are frequently cut short,” Cora says. “Boaters who don’t observe the no-wake signs in manatee areas have been known to injure or kill manatees with their boat propellers or in a collision. Manatees can get entangled in fishing nets or line. Loss of habitat is the most serious threat facing manatees in the United States today.”

Save the Manatee Club was founded in 1981 by singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham when he was governor of Florida. The national nonprofit organization with more than 25,000 members was created to protect Florida’s official state marine mammal.

Members support the group’s work financially by adopting manatees and volunteering.

“Manatees don’t get nearly the recognition that dolphins and whales do,” Cora says. “I guess they’re not as popular because they don’t jump through hoops. But to me, when I look at a baby manatee, they are just the cutest things ever. How can you not want to advocate for them? I have really found my calling.”