Captains Mike and Stacy Dunn Honored by Club
Captains Mike and Stacy Dunn Honored by Club

Captains Mike and Stacy Dunn (left and right) with Helen Spivey (center), Save the Manatee Club Board of Directors Co-Chair. The Dunns were recently presented "Manatee Hero" awards for their outstanding concern and commitment to manatee protection.

Save the Manatee Club (SMC) recently honored Captains Stacy and Mike Dunn of Crystal River, Florida, with "Manatee Hero" awards for their outstanding concern and commitment to manatee protection. The awards were presented by Helen Spivey, SMC Board of Directors Co-Chair, and Patrick Rose, SMC Executive Director.

Stacy and Mike Dunn didn’t set out to be manatee advocates. Recently celebrating 21 years of marriage, they both share a love of the water. When they retired, they came to live in Crystal River, where they found a place right across from Kings Spring. “Almost daily we’ll see otters, dolphins or manatees – sometimes all in the same day!” says Stacy. Then the couple started seeing various problems in the area, such as boats speeding on the bay, fishermen in manatee sanctuaries at night, and manatee harassment.

One day, while out on the water, Stacy and Mike came upon a female manatee with terrible injuries from a boat’s propeller. They spent the next eight hours watching over the manatee and her nursing calf until staff from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) – already on another injured manatee call south of the city – could arrive to rescue her. Unfortunately, the manatee’s injuries were too severe, and she died in front of the horrified couple. “Her struggle to survive was almost more than I could take,” says Stacy. “I still tear up when I think about her final moments and the baby sticking by her side as they towed her away.” It was a major turning point for the couple, who decided to take an active part in protecting manatees in their area.

Manatee photo by Stacy Dunn
"It's really special to see a rehabilitated manatee released back into the wild," says Stacy. (Photo by Mike Dunn.)

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Stacy remembers the first time she saw a manatee at age 12 while on a trip through Crystal River with a friend’s family. “Seeing a manatee swim by the dock made me very interested in these creatures,” she says. “Later, when I was on my own, I always made a yearly trip to Crystal River to see these gentle giants.” Mike, whose father was in the U.S. Air Force, was born in France. An avid springs diver, he would also stop in Crystal River to see manatees.

After they retired, both Mike and Stacy decided to get a captain’s license. “Besides getting out there daily with the manatees, I wanted to observe what the touring sector was doing,” says Stacy. After working with area companies, Stacy found she wasn’t comfortable taking out large groups and placing them in the water with one or two manatees. “Tour boat after tour boat would do the same thing for hours each day,” she says. “I used to watch mothers and babies chased all over coves and not have time to bond and get nourishment. Though there are a lot of great caring tour captains out there who truly love and care for the manatees’ well being, there are others who love the money a little better. They make sure their customers get that close, hands-on encounter, without regard for the manatees.” Seeing a need for a responsible manatee viewing operation, their company, Manatees in Paradise, was born. “Our business is limited to no more than six people,” says Stacy. “It’s more personal and more educational. We try not to intrude but to be a guest in the manatees’ home.”

Mike and Stacy volunteer countless hours with the FWC, observing possible sick or injured manatees, recovering dead manatees, and lending a hand when the agencies conduct manatee health assessments in the bay. “Sometimes if FWC biologists have several calls around the state, we'll check out the situation, take pictures, and email them so they can see which injured animals are a priority,” says Stacy. “We have learned a lot and have been able to share this knowledge with area tour captains, even signs that might indicate a sick manatee or a manatee with internal injuries. These tour captains are the extra ‘eyes’ on the manatees and they have been instrumental in locating manatees needing human assistance or rehabilitation to survive. It's really special to see a rehabilitated manatee released back into the wild. And it’s special to see all the people out here who care about the manatees.”

“As tour captains, we believe it is a privilege to have an encounter with a manatee, it's not our right," says Mike. “Everyone must help protect and be good stewards for the manatees.” Stacy agrees. “All manatee deaths sadden me, especially when they aren't able to reach their lifespan of 50 to 60 years,” she says. “They have a right to be here as do humans. They play important roles in our lives and the overall circle of life.”

Watch a video about Stacy and Mike Dunn and their efforts to help protect manatees. (Video by Cora Berchem, Save the Manatee Club.)

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