In a murky, garbage-strewn canal next to a dilapidated apartment complex, a mossy-colored beast breaks the water's surface. The manatee looks as out of place in this hood as a three-piece-suit-clad banker chillin' at Churchill's.
Kit Curtin, a veteran biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, says it ain't easy being a manatee in the big city, but there are hundreds in the waterways. "This might be the only place in Miami where manatees can sleep in peace," she says. "It may not look like an important environment, but for the manatees it's crucial."
Curtin is a thin, blond 53-year-old from Key Largo. She has a weathered complexion earned during 20 years of photographing manatees and laughs easily while telling stories about the creatures. They're nicknamed "sea cows," she says, for their gentle, corpulent figures and can grow to 1,300 pounds, about 1.5 times heavier than a Harley-Davidson Road King. In the old days, drunken sailors mistook them for women.
Over the decades, Curtin has seen it all: poachers butchering the animals, dams crushing them alive, even human bodies floating through their habitat. Now the manatees face a new threat: the loss of Curtin, whose federal grants have evaporated in the recession.
"Kit's contributions are huge in keeping manatees healthy and safe," says Kathy Beck, her supervisor at USGS. "It's only through her dedication she's been able to keep doing this."
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Curtin, a Boston native and '92 Florida International University grad, began tracking manatees through Miami in 1987; now she knows dozens by name.
Once, fishermen told her about Jamaicans they'd seen slitting manatees' throats and speeding away with their illegal catch. In the Cocaine Cowboy-era '80s, the owner of an apartment complex near a manatee-filled canal kept track of the human bodies washing up versus manatees killed by boats or dams. (Humans won, eight to seven, Curtin says.)
Mostly, though, Curtin's job is tracking the creatures, which have rebounded since flirting with extinction in the early '70s. Today, 5,000 live around Florida, including 800 in South Florida. Twenty percent of those swim in Miami's canals, she says.
Curtin now hopes to raise enough cash through private donations to the Sea to Shore Alliance to continue her work. "Everyone knows me in these neighborhoods, and I know all the manatees," she says. "I just hope I can keep doing this for another 20 years."