Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Diving with the Manatees

You may remember from a previous post or two that FireMan & I are volunteer divers at the zoo. We clean the manatee tank.

Well, it had been quite a while since I had been (post about that to follow), and last Friday was my first time back in the tank in what seemed like forever.

It was good. Very good.

As a scuba diver, it was good just to get back in the water. Living in the Midwest, unless you travel pretty far, your only options are pretty much cold water dives. Which were fine... until my first ocean dive. Ha! That warm water ruined me for those cold quarry dives.

And then it's good to see the manatees. Being an endangered species, any manatees in captivity are part of a rehabilitation program, with the hopes of eventual release. It's just so good to be a small part of that effort.

And it was good to get news.

The zoo's previous manatees, Slip & Li'l Joe, were sent to Florida at the end of 2009 to finish their rehab and be released. We found out that Slip is doing very well, while Li'l Joe has had some difficulty adjusting to life in the wild. He's not really catching on, and has had to be pulled back in and re-released three times now. This last time he happened to be released near where Slip was, and they met up and have been hanging out for some time now. Everyone is hopeful that being near his old friend, and following  Slip's lead, will help Li'l Joe get things figured out so he can permanently stay in the wild. Hopefully.

So now the zoo has three new manatees: Betsy, Illusion, and... ??  I feel horrible that I don't remember the third one's name. For now I will call him "Baby M".

Betsy was born in captivity while her momma was in a rehab program. She is now 20 years old, and has never lived anywhere but in captivity. That used to be a sentence for either death when released, or simply a lifetime in captivity. Now that FWS (Fish & Wildlife Services) uses GPS tracking, they are able to release them, and monitor their progress, pulling them back in when needed. Success rate for manatees raised in captivity is still only about 50%.

See, ends up this feeding / migrating / what-to-do thing, for manatees at least, isn't as much instinctual as it is learned. So if babies aren't in the wild with their mommas when they are very young, then... they don't learn it. It's up to us humans to try to teach (or "rehabilitate") them.

Illusion was my personal favorite. Probably because she also seemed to take a liking to me. We're not supposed to touch the manatees, except to push them away if need be. But they can touch us all they want. She was all over me! The whole two hours! Kept swimming by me, nibbling on my fins, I swear she was performing for me at one point (it was so cute), knocked me into the window once, and towards the end I even got three manatee kisses (they come right up to you with their noses and "kiss" you - very lightly touching / pushing on your face / goggles).

Her story makes me sad. She was pulled out of the wild because of a severe injury from a boat propellor. It cut through the muscles leading to her tail, which is how manatees propel themselves. The muscles are permanently damaged, but luckily over time the surrounding muscles have picked up the slack and she is now able to get around the water just fine! The head manatee keeper expects her to be the next to be released, possibly later this year. Although they & the zoo veterinarian just make recommendations, and it's up to FWS to make the final call. We'll see! It would be awesome to have her back in her natural habitat.

And then there's Baby M. So little. Baby M was pulled from the water during the winter months due to signs of severe cold stress. He was very thin, and had ulcers that covered most of his body. Florida has been hit with several cold winters in a row, and this has had a devestating effect on the manatee population. He is now doing well. At two years old his skin is as smooth as can be, oddly void of the scars from boat propellors that most manatees have. He is eating well, and gaining weight like a champ, but still needs to gain a couple of hundred pounds before he meets the minimum qualifications for release. Luckily he did start out in the wild with his momma, so his chances of a successful release are pretty good.

As you might be able to tell, thru our volunteer efforts FireMan & I have become... attached... to manatees. They have become an animal favorite for each of us, and we've started teaching FireGirl about them as well.

Such noble, gentle, curious animals - endangered (as so many are) simply because of man's carelessness.

There are various ways to support the manatees, even from the comfort of your own home.

Organizations that promote manatee protection:

Zoos & Other Organizations that rehabilitation manatees:


*note* these are not complete lists


Melissa said...

The manatees are always one of our favorite stops at the zoo. It is such a wonderful program, It is so cool that you get to be a part of it!

Cyndy Bush said...

I live in Florida and I just love manatees. I think what you do is awesome! A manatee kiss?? Priceless!

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