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Geoffrey Smith: Wildlife artist says manatees flock to food behind art studio

'You can't help but smile when you see them,' artist says
Posted at 11:08 PM, Jan 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-27 10:40:45-05

PORT SALERNO, Fla. — As the unprecedented deaths of manatees have environmental groups scouring for solutions, some are finding their own, small ways to help.

A local artist, Geoffrey Smith, is world-renowned for his art that highlights nature and wildlife.

He has a studio at the corner of Dixie Highway and Southeast St. Lucie Boulevard.

Behind his studio, he has worked for a couple of years to clear out weeds, and overgrown and invasive vegetation that covered an underlying canal.

At first, he was trying to clean up the preserve area so he could attract more birds to photograph and inspire his work.

"The great blue heron, ibis, snowy egrets," he listed.

But for the first time since clearing the canal, he's also seeing manatees.

"We've probably seen 24 in here," Smith said.

As part of cleaning the canal, he planted native plants like mangroves, which manatees flock to.

"The salt marsh cordgrass is the name of the plant we planted right at the water's edge… that is one of their feed sources," Smith said.

The latest data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows a record number of manatees died last year —more than 1,100.

A significant contributor to that spike, officials said, was starvation from dwindling food sources.

Seagrass die-off has been blamed largely on toxic algae blooms and excessive nutrient runoff into the Indian River Lagoon.

"The die-off we're having is unprecedented. We need to do everything we can to keep them around," Smith said.

Cold weather attracted manatees down the canal behind his shop, where he said he's happy, he's helping them in more ways than one.

"I was thrilled when we saw them eating. That was just so amazing," Smith said.

He said he will work to maintain the shoreline vegetation.

"It will be self-sustaining and the manatees can come in and get more food," Smith said.

It's his small contribution to help a struggling species that's long been his muse.

"You can't help but smile when you see them," Smith said.