Rescuing Florida’s Threatened Gentle Giants
By Allan Richter
Visitors to SeaWorld Orlando who follow the joyous screams from the park’s Mako roller coaster and the path around nearby exhibits will eventually encounter a bucolic freshwater pond stocked with fish, logs and plant life.
In contrast to the amusement from the park’s thrilling rides, this particular corner of SeaWorld is in the more serious business of saving lives. It is where the park cares for rescued manatees it is preparing to release.
Though manatees were removed from the endangered species list in 2016 as their numbers increased, the lumbering animals that graze in shallow water— and whose image is ubiquitous on Florida license plates—remain vulnerable to threats including boat collisions, storms and red tide, a toxic algae bloom that by August last year had contributed to more manatee deaths than the 538 that died in 2017.
“Even though manatees have recently been downgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened,’ they’re still a concern,” says Nicholas Ricci, a lead Animal Care Specialist at SeaWorld’s manatee rescue area, as he hunches over the freshwater pool housing the animals. “We really want to make sure that we’re giving the species every chance to recover.”
SeaWorld is one of about a dozen zoos, aquariums and marine facilities under the umbrella of Florida state and federal wildlife agencies that rescue and rehabilitate distressed manatees to release the animals back into the wild. The facilities include the Miami Seaquarium; Epcot’s Living Seas at Disney World; and three out-of-state zoos: in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which can care for healthier manatees if Florida groups are overwhelmed with animals needing more urgent care.
The facilities make up the Manatee Rehabilitation and Rescue Program. “It’s a conglomerate of a whole bunch of aquariums and zoos and US Fish and Wildlife, all working together to make sure that we look at each other’s cases, and everyone talks to each other to make sure that animals that are ready to be released get released, and in the right location,” Ricci says.
SeaWorld’s freshwater manatee pool—the water can also be made brackish since manatees live in both fresh and saltwater—includes two resident female manatees that appear unable to be released into the wild. Sara was orphaned in 1986 and has become too attached to people, Ricci says. The animal could be tempted to approach boats and get wounded by propellers—scars from boats appear on the backs of many Florida manatees—or become caught in a storm drain or entangled in fishing line.
The rescuers fear releasing the second manatee, Oakley, because she doesn’t adapt to change. Each time they’ve prepared Oakley for release and changed her environment, however slightly, the animal has stopped eating.
The two females are “conditionally non-releasable,” Ricci says. “I mention that because there’s no such thing as a non-releasable manatee. Every single animal we rescue, we want to get out and release.”
In total, the pool houses five orphans, two orphaned in the Fort Myers area, on Florida’s west coast, because of Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in September 2017. Jose, the smaller of the two who became separated from his mother in the storm, repeatedly ran into dock pilings, cutting up his flippers and leaving white marks on the appendages.
The other manatee orphaned during the hurricane—Dex, short for Dextrose—was emaciated when he was found. He was around three weeks old when he was brought in at 45 pounds, possibly half the weight he should have been at that age.
“We like to see a newborn manatee ideally born around 60 pounds,” says Ricci. “We’ve found some newborns as big as 80 pounds. I’ve rescued orphans as small as 15 pounds, though those 15-pounders usually don’t make it. That’s a really rough start at life. That would be a preemie.”
Rescuers consider a young manatee an orphan if it has been apart from its mother for 24 hours. Many Florida residents who see a young manatee struggling or on its own know to call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees animal rescues. The FWC then sends a biologist out to observe if the animal and its mother reunite. If after a day of observation, they don’t, the manatee is brought in to a marine rescue facility such as SeaWorld or others chartered to rehabilitate the animals.
Rescuers wait the 24 hours because female manatees sometimes leave their calves to go feed and return later. “You don’t want to operate too quickly, but at the same time, in the case of a storm, if there is a calf all by itself, [rescuers are] going to make that call,” Ricci says. “So they waited the right amount of time for Jose; no mom was found.”
Dex’s case was more critical: The animal was brought in as soon as he was found washed up on the beach. Though female manatees temporarily beach themselves on a flat tidal area to avoid the advances of males, a young manatee out of the water is a sign the animal is in distress. Dex put himself on land because he was too weak to swim.
A pool in another section of SeaWorld’s five-acre manatee rescue area serves as a manatee nursery for younger animals. The pool is relatively empty of objects so the manatees cannot bump into obstacles that might hurt them. It was to this pool area that Dex was first brought when he was rescued. Like other young animals in Dex’s situation, Dex was kept out of the water, hydrated and watched carefully to help keep him warm. But it took only 24 hours for Dex to show he was strong enough to be put in the pool, prompting Ricci to call the animal a “miracle baby.”
Manatee calves typically stay with their mothers for 18 to 24 months, nursing with less frequency as they get older. In contrast, to reduce human contact and boost the chances of their young rescues getting released into the wild, the SeaWorld rehabilitation staff tries to wean the calves off human dependence in 10 to 12 months. At the nursery pool, staff gets in the water to bottle-feed the young animals; when the calves show they understand how to take the bottle well, handlers leave the water to feed them poolside instead.
“I’ve got to walk a very fine line,” Ricci says. “I need them to look at me as a parent figure for a little bit of time, but eventually I need them to separate.”
Manatees in another pool, this one set further from public view, were being treated for sunburn. One wore a wet suit to keep his back from getting exposed, even though the pool was partially shaded with an overhang. Another animal had a bright white back from a protective zinc oxide coating.
In addition to orphans, SeaWorld and the other marine rescue facilities and aquariums care for manatees that have eaten or entangled themselves in something that can hurt them. Manatees enjoy rolling in sea grass, putting them at risk of entangling themselves in a discarded net or fishing line. Other manatees get lost or separated from their mothers during migration to warmer waters; their bodies cannot tolerate waters below 68°F for too long.
“Manatees are very curious,” Ricci notes. “They have no natural predators, so that just makes them very easy-going, laid-back animals, and they like to explore anything they see. Sometimes that gets them in trouble. Just like a newborn baby human, if they see something, they put it in their mouth.”
The conventional wisdom, that boat strikes are the No. 1 reason for rescues, is wrong, Ricci says. “Honestly, our types of rescue change with the season.” During last winter’s cold snap, for instance, many manatees suffered cold stress, essentially hypothermia.
The search for warm environs can make uncovered storm drains, where warm water can typically be found, a risk. Four years ago, Ricci and four colleagues received an emergency call about a mother and calf stuck in a storm drain. When the team arrived at the spot, they discovered that 20 manatees had in fact been stranded in the drain.
Although that rescue took more than 10 hours, into the middle of the night, the effort provided a more instant payoff than rescues of other manatees that must spend months or years being rehabilitated.
“Every single one we were able just to pick up, relocate and release right then,” Ricci happily recalls of the 20 manatees trapped in the storm drain. “They didn’t have to come in for rehabilitation.”
Enchanted Encounters with Manatees
More than 20 years ago, when I first entered the waters of Crystal River in Florida, my first encounter with a manatee was both unplanned and unsettling. Wearing a wetsuit that made me buoyant, I was floating at the surface when what resembled a huge gray rock, or more of a torpedo, began to slowly ascend directly beneath me. It was about eight feet long and had the girth of a walrus.
I moved out of its way and, as quickly as I had become nervous, warmed up to what turned out to be a manatee that had been grazing on the grasses below. The animal’s slow, lumbering movement, as well as the gentle wave of its large spatula-shaped tail, told me this was not an animal to fear but to respect and feel good about. So, did its “sea cow” nickname.
My fiancé and I returned to Crystal River just about every manatee season for a decade. In fact, on one visit she agreed to marry me as we drove to Crystal River and I quietly placed a ring on her finger when Tony Bennett came on the radio.
The season for seeing the animals in Crystal River is between November 1 and March 1, when the colder Gulf of Mexico waters send manatees migrating to the river’s year-round 72°F springs. Crystal River is the only place in Florida where it is legal to swim with manatees.
We became enchanted with young manatees nursing on their mothers, attached where the flipper and body meet, just yards away. Manatees, especially the younger ones, would swim to us and roll over as if inviting us to scratch their sandpaper-like bellies. We obliged.
But there were heartbreaking sightings as well. Just about every adult manatee had thick white scars from gashes caused by boat propellers. Signs posted throughout Crystal River caution of manatee zones in which boaters should proceed slow enough to avoid leaving a wake; any faster is illegal.
I rode with wildlife rangers who patrol the river to ensure that boating laws and other laws aimed at protecting manatees from harassment are followed. Human traffic was heavy in the river from groups on tour boats as well as individuals seeking an animal encounter.
Too often we witnessed a forbidden “star formation”— five or six snorkelers floating in a circle, their heads at the center, a sure sign that a manatee was below them. Or we would see a group of swimmers all moving quickly in unison through the water, a pretty sure sign that they were chasing a manatee.
I tried scuba diving Crystal River several times but learned that snorkeling was sufficient in these shallow waters and I could freedive if I needed to get deeper, as in one spot where you can view a small submerged manatee statue. The bubbles from the scuba regulator also seemed to keep the manatees at bay.
During those first years at Crystal River, few areas where manatees congregated were closed off to people. But over the years, wildlife officials correctly created sanctuaries in areas where manatees gathered regularly in large numbers.
My visits to Crystal River are far less frequent or regular than they once were, but I’ve noticed more new trends that bode well for the animals. A few years ago I saw more kayakers than ever, and motorless human transportation is good for manatees. And, last year, I saw that another section of Three Sisters Spring, one of my favorite spots in Crystal River, had been made into a sanctuary.
The 2017-2018 season was particularly cold, even for Crystal River. As a result, manatees were more scattered and encounters with people were few and far between. But it was also encouraging to see that in those few manatee sightings, there were no star formations and people were making no mad dashes to swim toward the animals. At least not to my eye.
Maybe people are growing up. That means the manatees can, in relative peace.
Where to Stay
Although manatees are a central draw to Crystal River, about an hour-and-a-half drive north of Tampa, the animals are not the only reasons for a visit. Unlike Florida’s seemingly overly developed East Coast, the West Coast features more natural habitats for wildlife, and this seems especially true for Crystal River.
When in town, we like to stay at Plantation on Crystal River. Pulling up to the resort’s circular driveway, the main building’s white façade evokes a plantation and the laid-back ways of Old Florida. The rooms are very much like typical motel accommodations, which is out of place for such an otherwise handsome resort—but you’re not likely to spend too much time indoors, anyhow.
Plantation on Crystal River is set right on the river and features the convenience of an on-site dive shop that can equip visitors looking to go out on the water on their own or on a tour with savvy guides.
An expansive lawn provides quiet spots, with shade provided by a gazebo or trees to lie beneath and while away the day. You can watch pelicans lounging on a nearby dock or swooping above the river in search of a snack. Egrets and herons are a common sight, as are birds called anhinga, which vigorously flap their wings while seeming to run across the water surface and take off.
In the water, I’ve run into enormous tarpon and, once, a small alligator. In the latter case, we decided to let each other be and carry on. If you’re in a more festive mood than the area’s inviting natural surroundings can provide, the resort touts a lively pool and bar area where spirited reggae music provides a nice soundtrack to a poolside lunch. For breakfast we’ve split our time between the resort’s buffet and several charming local nooks nearby. Visit plantationoncrystalriver.com.