The researchers envision the manatee finder as a sonar system attached to a floating platform with a warning light on it that flashes whenever it detects the presence of a manatee. The targeted range for the finder is 200 to 500 feet (60 to 150 meters). If the technology is proven robust, it may be designed for use on moving boats.
One of the key challenges of the technology is to distinguish the manatees from logs and other debris in the shallow water, said Jaffe, who is leading the bioacoustic engineering for the project. Manatee habitat is mostly shallow, narrow, and grassy waterways.
"We have very little knowledge of the properties of sound in these kinds of environments," said Jaffe.
As part of their work in Florida, the researchers will characterize the environment to determine what signals come from the manatees and what other noise they will need to filter out in order to make the system effective. Otherwise, boaters may find the warning light to be unreliable and ignore it, said Jaffe.
"If we can get it to work in shallow water, then it can be active 24 hours a day and doesn't matter what the manatee is doing," said Bowles.
The researchers also want to make sure that the sonar is not a nuisance to the manatees or other marine animals. The sonar that will be used emits a low-powered signal that is said to be well above the manatees' level of hearing. Jaffe said he hopes the sound will also be above the hearing range of most dolphins and other marine animals.
"You have to be sensitive to all the marine animals and the problems they face," said Thompson. "That is why it hasn't been done yet. It is not easy, it is a challenge, but sooner or later we will hit on the right technology."
Thompson said this system is potentially effective in open coastal waters, where it is impractical to expect boaters to drive at slow speeds all the time. If effective, Jaffe said it could be in place within a few years.
Editor's Note: The manatee sonar project is one of two projects funded through a joint conservation initiative of National Geographic and Busch Entertainment Corporation to address urgent conservation concerns. The initiative was announced July 16. The second project, a study of wild lions in Kenya's Masailand and an investigation into what can be done to help livestock farmers protect their herds without having to kill the predators, is featured in a separate report published by National Geographic News. A list of recent stories about research supported by the National Geographic Society may be found at the bottom of this page.
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