Florida's Sea Doc, Jesse White, Fights to Save the Gentle, Helpless Manatee

updated 07/09/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/09/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Dr. Jesse White was sprawled in a favorite lawn chair at his Dunnellon, Fla., home when the emergency call came. A badly mangled victim was reported floating listlessly in the nearby Crystal River. White rushed to his blue Jeep Comanche and sped off, spewing a rooster tail of dust that obscured his license plate: SEA DOC.

Jesse White, 55, is a veterinarian, a specialist in marine mammals. In this, as in most of his cases, his patient was a manatee, one of a breed now threatened with extinction by the pressures of human civilization. Manatees—"God's most gentle creatures," in White's view—swim placidly in Florida's warm springs, rivers and saltwater bays, munching on eelgrass and hydrangea. Where once manatees were nearly hunted out of existence for their veallike meat and thick hides, the survivors of the species now face a more modern menace: speeding powerboats with their slashing propeller blades. When boats and beasts collide, manatees lose.

In spite of a century-old protection law barring the hunting and killing of manatees, more than 100 corpses are found in Florida each year, most of them the victims of propeller cuts or pollution. And with 1 million registered boats now cruising the state's waterways, the slaughter is not likely to abate soon. Florida's wild manatee population numbers only some 1,500 today.

Such was the tragic outcome this day. The victim, a 900-pound male, bore the unmistakable curving marks of prop cuts on its back and tail and was emaciated and weakened by infection. Despite the best efforts of White and a boatload of U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers to minister to the animal with antibiotics, the manatee died.

Full-grown manatees, often called sea cows, grow to 13 feet and weigh as much as a ton. They have small heads, walrus noses, paddle like front flippers and wide
Spade-shaped tails—a configuration that perhaps only other manatees can love. Yet, "when Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he saw manatees, which he thought were mermaids," White says, chuckling. "You'd have to be at sea for a long time to think they're pretty." But manatees have endearing qualities. "There's not an aggressive bone in their body," says White. "They don't compete for food, space or sex. They are so benign, so helpless, I feel like I owe it to them to help them."

White has had a soft spot for all animals from the days of his youth in Oklahoma and Texas. He once skipped dinner rather than eat a pet rabbit that his mother had cooked. In 1955, while serving as a marine, he was given a pregnant spaniel by an officer who was headed for an overseas posting. "After she had pups, she started getting sick," Jesse remembers. "I took her to a local vet, and he saved her with one injection. I was so impressed that I said to myself, 'That's what I want to do; I want to be a vet.' "

After completing his military service and vet school, White worked with farm animals and pets and did veterinary research at a pharmaceutical firm. In 1967 he persuaded the Miami Seaquarium on Key Biscayne to hire him as its resident vet. Then as now the leaping dolphins and killer whales got star billing at the marine park. Its two manatees, named Big Bull and Mabel, were relegated to a back tank. With White's lobbying, the manatees were moved to better quarters and renamed Romeo and Juliet to enhance their image. Star-crossed as ever, they failed to produce offspring at first, but after White adjusted their diet, Juliet gave birth to a baby girl in 1975 and then began "cranking out another baby every two years," says White.

Before long, White was presiding over a mini population explosion. It occurred to him that a captive breeding program could replace manatees lost in the wild, and in 1984 two tank-born animals, Sunrise and Savannah, were tagged and placed in holding pens in Florida's Homosassa River, then released in 1986. "I believe they're still out there," Jesse says proudly.

During his years at Key Biscayne, White met Realtor Diane Miller, a regular visitor to the Seaquarium and later his unofficial lab assistant. They married in 1980 (it was his third marriage and her second; they have five children between them from previous marriages). In 1986 the Florida Department of Natural Resources asked White to launch a captive-manatee breeding effort in North Florida, and he agreed. A year later the new Governor axed the program, and the same month, Jesse was involved in a head-on car crash that shattered his chest and kneecaps and nearly killed him. "They said I'd never walk again; I said, 'Oh, yes, I will.' " It took him two years to rehabilitate himself.

Believing that "public education is the savior of the manatee," White has formed a nonprofit Florida Manatee Research and Education Foundation and tours the state speaking to schoolchildren and distributing fliers printed at his own expense. He hopes to restart a captive-breeding program and establish a manatee hospital, but he gets no funding from the state. For the past three years, the Whites have lived on Diane's income. "Sometimes it's like Don Quixote out there with the windmills," White admits. "But I won't give up," he says. "And if the species disappears, it'll be like the loss of innocence. Every manatee that dies is a loss to mankind."

—Dan Chu, Cindy Dampier in Dunnellon

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