A herd of manatees mating off shore drew a crowd of visitors and photographers at Thursday morning.
More than a dozen manatees were about five feet offshore, near the nature trail at the national seashore park.
Biologists from Mote Marine Laboratory came to the site to track their behavior and document which manatees were in the herd.
Two biologists from Mote Marine recognized a couple of the sea mammals. Jennifer Helseth, a staff biologist with Mote, has been photographing and counting manatees in this region for the past five years.
With her was senior biologist Sheri Barton, who has been researching manatees for 15 years.
"Everytime we get a call about a mating herd we come out," Helseth said.
The pair takes photos and collects environmental data and DNA samples to learn more about the manatees and to keep track of those in the region. They have seen some of the manatees often enough that a few have nicknames.
On Tuesday, they recognized one manatee they had nicknamed "Jair." Researchers officially catalog each of the manatees by number, but when they are out in the field, it's easier to use nicknames to communicate about what's going on.
Scott Pardue, supervisor at De Soto National Memorial, let Mote Marine know that the herd was out mating so it could come take photos. He also wanted to make sure that the manatees were safe, as onlookers gathered to watch.
The mating manatees attracted a crowd, and while Pardue encourages visitors at the park to enjoy all of its natural aspects, he also was out keeping an eye on things to make sure no one disturbed the manatees. A park ranger kept his distance in a kayak as other boaters passed by the area.
The crowd on shore took everything in. It's rare to see manatees so close and so visible. Visitors took photos and video of the manatees splashing in the water.
A female manatee tried to swim away from all of the males trying to breed with her, but never could get far away. The males climbed up on the female, surrounded her and stuck as close as they could.
Helseth said the ritual could go on for hours or even days. She said biologists once followed a mating herd for 49 days.
Greg Roosa, a visitor from Garden City, MI, said he was staying as long as possible.
"I'm only here for a week, and I'm taking it all in," Roosa said.