Adjacent to Merritt Island—one of the nation’s best birding sites and our favourite place to bird watch in a relaxed natural environment far from the crowds of Orlando—Canaveral National Seashore was our destination on Thursday, with the manatee release taking place at 10am under a rather threatening sky. The park is a sanctuary for 14 species of threatened or endangered animals, including sea turtles, manatee and birds, and Eddy Creek, the release location inside the park, was chosen for its familiarity to these particular manatees, three of whom had been under the care of SeaWorld’s Animal Rescue Team since December 2012, and one since March 2013.
Named Pipsqueak, Nitty, and Braille, the first three females were rescued after becoming entrapped in a mosquito impound (earthen dikes used to control mosquito infestation) and suffering cold stress, while the newcomer, Asaka, suffered buoyancy problems along with boat propeller and rudder wounds, and was rescued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, then taken to SeaWorld for rehabilitation. Long months of intense care brought them to this day, and to a creek that would feel just like home.
Many of the people gathered on a dock next to the small beach where the manatees would be freed were long-time supporters of the rescue programme, and we chatted amiably as blue crabs, hermit crabs and schools of tiny fish went about their business in the water below us. When SeaWorld’s two trucks arrived with the guests of honour, everything kicked into high gear. One by one the manatees were taken from the trucks in heavy blue stretcher-style slings, each having been weighed, then measured when they were placed on the beach. Simon joined the group on the beach for an up-close view, but even from my vantage point on the dock it was clear the team was watching the animals for any signs of stress, giving them comforting pats until it was time to let them go. For their part, the manatees appeared quiet and content.
When all four were ready for release, the team and several helpers picked up the stretchers, entered the lagoon, and allowed the manatees to slip gently into the depths where paparazzi from the local news channels eagerly snapped photos and gathered video footage, some nearly up to their necks in water. We watched as their ‘footprints’ (big, wide, smooth spots on the surface of the water) slowly moved into the lagoon, but to our surprise, the manatees lingered for quite some time, rolling and romping and clearly loving the feeling of being back in their home waters. It was quite beautiful to see, and their carefree attitude and willingness to remain close-by spoke to the care and attention they had received during their rehabilitation.
With all four ‘girls’ playing in the water just beyond us, we had the chance to speak with Pedro Ramos-Navarrete, Supervisor of Animal Rescue, who told us what a day like this means to him. “You feel like you’ve achieved something by helping them get healthy. We do form a bond with them, and it’s bittersweet because we don’t want to see them again. If we see them again that means they’re in trouble again. It’s a great feeling to do this, and it feels great when we can put them back out. Our goal is to return them to their natural environment.”
But what is it like to rescue them in the first place? “It’s a lot of work,” he said, “especially when we get orphans. They need bottle feeding every 4 hours, starting at 3a.m. for the first bottle, with the last bottle at midnight. Some need antibiotics. It’s very labour intensive. These four responded very well. They put on weight—between 65 pounds and 220 pounds.”
How does SeaWorld find animals in need of rescue? “We work with State and Federal agencies,” Pedro said, “and when they confirm an animal is in distress, we rescue that animal. They keep contact with us throughout the rehabilitation and when we tell them the animal is ready for release we all agree on a date and a location.”
What is it like for the manatees who return to the wild? Does their confinement hinder their ability to look for food, or open them up to greater problems in their natural environment? “They have no trouble going out again, and face no more danger than they normally would,” he said. By the looks of the playful splashing in the lagoon behind us, it was hopeful they would have smooth sailing from here onward.
The success SeaWorld has had with their rescue and rehab programme bodes well for further cases, such as the five other manatees still recuperating at the park, in different stages of rehabilitation. We wondered what more we could do, and Pedro made it clear that while natural conditions such as cold snaps and algae blooms can be a problem, the main threats to manatees are avoidable: boat and beach trash, fishing line, crab traps, and boat propellers pose threats, so it’s essential for swimmers and boaters to be diligent in keeping the beaches and waters clean.
Watching four whiskery snouts poke out of the water for a breath, and realising the outcome would have been very different had SeaWorld’s Animal Rescue team not been there to save them, got us right in the sentimentals. It was a magnificent sight. As Mark, a young man standing on the dock with us said, “I think it’s cool what SeaWorld is doing, because they could have died but now they’re back to normal.”
If you would like to do something to help keep these gentle creatures safe, consider volunteering for a beach clean-up, which removes trash that would otherwise find its way into the rivers, lakes, and ocean. And follow SeaWorld on Facebook and their web page for further volunteer opportunities and the times and location for further rehabilitated animal releases.
Restaurant Recommendation: If you spend the day in the Titusville area and want something cheerful and relatively inexpensive for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, try the Village Inn. Cleaner and slightly smarter than its International Drive cousin, the menu is hearty down-home cookin’ and the pies call your name the moment you walk in the door (beware; a slice of pie here is huge!). Too full for dessert? Take a whole pie back to your accommodation for later.