Understanding the manatee

This year in kindergarten, Charlie Siegel studied manatees, made puppets of manatees and even donated money toward the rehabilitation of manatees.

But when Charlie, 6, finally saw the a manatee during his recent end-of-the-year field trip to the Miami Seaquarium, he was still surprised by what it looked like.

“It looks like a humongous cow without spots,’’ he said, after feeding the marine mammal. “I was expecting it to be a smaller.”

Charlie and his kindergarten class from Bet Shira Early Learning Education Center in southwest Miami-Dade were on an Endangered Manatee Expedition that his teacher Carol Ravikoff plans every year. The manatee expedition is one of six themed presentations offered to schools by the Seaquarium as a $3 to $4 add-on to field trips. The presentations are developed around Florida’s Sunshine State Standards and designed to supplement what the students are learning in class.

“It’s OK to learn about them on a board,” said Ravikoff, who has brought her kindergarteners to the Seaquarium every year since 2001. “But when you see them, actually see them, that’s what is so fantastic!”

Ana Lindeberg, 22, is an education specialist at the seaquarium. She leads the field trip presentations that have been available to schools and youth groups from grades K-12 for more than 20 years.

“The reason why the educational component is so important is because we are more than just about entertainment and shows,” said Lindeberg, a biologist who graduated from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. “We have four pillars that we strive for in our park and education is one of them.”

The Miami Seaquarium is a manatee and sea turtle rehabilitation and rescue facility that centers itself on education, entertainment, wildlife conservation and community involvement. It hosts approximately 75,000 school kids annually.

The field trip presentations are one component of the education department’s efforts to teach South Florida about marine life. The department employs two full-time education specialists, one education manager, and additional part-time staff for the summer camp, which begins on June 10.

In each presentation, students receive a lesson about the animals featured followed by an animal interaction and feeding. Other themes schools can choose from include Techniques in Training, Fish versus Sharks, Seal Studies, Spectacular Stingrays and Sea Turtle Alert.

“Usually we start out with what is a manatee? Or what is a sea turtle?” said Lindeberg. “Afterwards, we talk about their anatomy, behavior, habitat, what they eat, and every presentation ends with how we can help this animal and how we can prevent them from becoming endangered.”

The seaquarium’s curriculum is updated to keep abreast of classroom teaching and current events, according to Cristina Rodriguez, public relations and promotions manager at the seaquarium.

“While manatees have not changed over the 60 years that we’ve been open, certainly the current events have, so the curriculum is always evolving even though the animals continue to be the same,” said Rodriguez.

This year, Lindeberg focused the manatee presentation on the Red Tide, an algae bloom that harms the animals’ nervous system and has killed a record-breaking 120 manatees in South Florida this year.

“I think that the schools do a really good job of teaching them about what kind of animals are around them here in Florida,” said Lindeberg. “Kindergarteners, you don’t think would know a lot, but I’ve been surprised by what kind of questions they ask about marine animals.”