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Open Sesame

On Florida's eastern coast, not far from the place where NASA launches spacecraft, attention has been focused earthward in recent weeks on a high-tech effort to protect a threatened sea creature from literally being crushed to death. If successful, the project will afford Manatees a safer passage through the hazardous waters of Port Canaveral.

The Manatee is a massive aquatic mammal that can weigh more than 3,000 pounds and measure up to 13 feet in length. At last count there were fewer than 2,000 Manatees in the Florida area. But despite its being listed as an endangered species since 1973, numerous threats to the Manatee remain, chief among them boaters, pollution, and water-control structures like flood gates and navigation locks. It's the last devices that make Port Canaveral especially dangerous for Manatees.

Connecting inland waterways with the Atlantic Ocean, Port Canaveral is a popular spot for Manatees. Often the animals enter the port in the morning, then spend the day there playing, feeding, mating, and resting before returning inland at dusk. Passage back and forth, though, exposes the Manatees to the repeated risk of being trapped in the port's locks. And while Manatees may seem large to us humans, they're no match for these gates. In 1996 alone four Manatees died after being caught in Port Canaveral's locks; the number injured was almost certainly much higher.

Now, the good news: a recently installed series of acoustic sensors in Port Canaveral should stop the gates from closing before they harm Manatees. Dubbed the Manatee Protection System, the setup consists of more than 300 transmitters and receivers that together create an acoustic shield around the locks. When a Manatee breaches that shield, it activates an alarm that, in a fraction of a second, can stop a gate in its tracks. The gate then reverses and opens so the Manatee can pass unharmed. It's the marine equivalent of the electronic garage-door opener that stops the moment a neighbor's cat darts out from under your car. Best of all, during installation and testing, the new Port Canaveral system helped save five Manatees from potentially fatal injuries.