Saving the manatees — rescue by rescue, rehab by rehab

Florida is scrambling to prevent another horrific year of starvation deaths among the beloved mammals

Maggie Mariolis chaperones Corleone as the manatee is transported to Florida's Blue Spring State Park after being restored to health at the SeaWorld Rescue Center in Orlando. (Zack Wittman for The Washington Post)
7 min

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ORLANDO — On an unusually cold winter morning in central Florida, Corleone the manatee was awakened before dawn by wetsuited workers who slipped into his pool at SeaWorld and wrapped him in a long vinyl sling.

A crane slowly hoisted him out of the water and carefully lowered him to the rear door of an empty box truck, where other staff pushed, pulled and slid their “manatee burrito” inside. Two hopped in to keep Corleone company on his latest journey.

“He’s very chill. He’s such a good traveler,” rescue specialist Maggie Mariolis said. “He should be, because he’s done a lot of it lately.”

Mariolis was part of the team that in mid-November brought Corleone some 310 miles from Hilton Head, S.C., where he’d gotten stuck in a canal near a golf course, far from his winter feeding grounds in Florida and at risk of succumbing to cold stress. Ensuring his survival was part of an increasingly urgent effort to save the manatee population, which has been dying off at alarming speeds in the past 14 months, especially along Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Last year alone, 1,110 manatees died — about 15 percent of the total population in a state where they are beloved. Most perished from starvation because the sea grass beds on which they feed have been destroyed by pollutants and toxic algae blooms worsened by climate change.

The wildlife officials and biologists trying to minimize further losses recently took the unprecedented step of setting out fresh heads of romaine and Bibb lettuce daily for hungry manatees gathering in the warmer outflow waters of a power plant near Cape Canaveral. The experiment made little progress initially, with many people fearing the animals could be in for another brutal winter. “Carcass removal” is now a state priority, one official acknowledged.

But within the past week, some three dozen sea cows were observed munching on the lettuce. Wildlife officials said the animals ate 450 pounds of produce in a day.

“It looks like that’s starting to have some success now,” said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, who visited the site Thursday. “I’m very optimistic.”

Florida has five manatee rehabilitation centers, which are working under emergency conditions. Manatees usually spend three or four months in care — at an average cost of $40,000 — but the rescue operations are having to move recovering mammals out as quickly as possible to make room for the malnourished ones coming in.

All the centers are overwhelmed.

“We’re full right now. We’re trying to find more bed space, so we’re shuffling animals around,” said Craig Miller, curator of mammals at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. “When we have manatees that are stabilized and we’re confident they can be released, even if we’d prefer to keep them and fatten them up for another month or so, we need to release them to make room. That’s what we’re facing.”

In mid-January, SeaWorld sent four much-improved manatees to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio. Corleone’s departure on Tuesday opened up space for another creature, and his release into the wild was one of the few positive notes. It meant he was strong enough.

He’d arrived in Orlando on Nov. 17, a young adult weighing about 730 pounds. He was put in a pool at SeaWorld with two other manatees and given all the romaine he wanted. He went through daily weigh-ins and had vital signs checked by a team of veterinarians and rescue specialists. During the next two months, he ate his way through enough greens to now tip the scale at 845. His optimal adult weight is about 1,000 pounds.

In the back of the truck driving him to his new home, Corleone was content to snuffle the air a few times, blink a little at the lights and sleep, swaying with the bumps and turns as he and his escort team headed up Interstate 4 and then down country roads to Blue Spring State Park.

When they arrived, there were no cranes or pulleys to help the 14 volunteers and staff remove Corleone from the truck. They gently lowered the sling to the ground, then lifted and dragged it through the dirt and down a few wooden steps to a small beach where the St. Johns River meets Blue Spring. A park ranger had counted 538 manatees there the day before, so the new arrival would have a lot of company and food. Sea grass is plentiful in the area.

The team floated the sling into the water, and with a little nudging, Corleone swam free. “This is the best part of the job,” Mariolis said.

The only real break manatees have gotten recently is the weather. Except for a few brief cold snaps, Florida has enjoyed an unusually mild winter. When the mercury dips low, however, cooling water temperatures can prove lethal despite manatees’ blubbery protection. That’s why they traditionally gather in the state’s myriad springs, where waters may remain as warm as 72 degrees.

The feeding experiment in the Indian River Lagoon began as temperatures fell below 68 in some waterways and the animals sought out cozier feeding spots such as the area near the Florida Power & Light plant. Rose believes the pilot program there needs to be expanded.

“For those manatees that are already malnourished that are coming into the winter in a state of starvation, they’re going to need help,” he said. “The supplemental feeding will do the job it needs to do, but we still need capacity to help the manatees that need to be rescued today. We’ve just been lucky it hasn’t been as cold.”

The federal and state agencies that oversee manatee protection continue to focus on the crisis. Twenty manatees have been rescued on the Atlantic coast in the past month. Most were significantly underweight.

“It’s been pretty busy,” said Andy Garrett, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission’s manatee rescue coordinator. “Some of these animals are coming in in really bad states. These are not animals that can be turned around in a few days. They will likely need months or a year.”

That will require more rehab capacity. According to Rose, officials are looking at every strategy from supporting smaller zoos to help them afford staff and pools to care for the animals to partnering with fish hatcheries as places to send manatees that aren’t quite ready to be back in the wild.

Trying to solve the real problem — the devastating loss of sea grass in the 156-mile-long Indian River Lagoon — will take much longer.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in September announced $53 million in grants to improve the lagoon’s water quality. The money will help replace more than 3,000 septic tanks and upgrade three wastewater treatment plants in central Florida. Pollution from those sources, along with pesticide runoff from farms and lawns, leads to algae blooms. And the blooms, combined with climate change, kill the sea grass that sustains the manatees. The state acknowledges that it will take many millions of dollars more to build what it calls “sustainable sewer infrastructure.”

The celebration over Corleone’s successful release didn’t last long on Tuesday, though. His handlers packed up and returned to SeaWorld, where the rescue team remains on high alert. Members are bottle-feeding young orphans — sometimes found swimming alone, other times still beside their dead mothers. Since calves nurse for up to two years, such circumstances often are deadly.

Mariolis, who has been working with manatees for nearly 20 years, said she and her colleagues are accustomed to treating the issues that usually harm the marine mammals — mostly boat strikes but also fishing line entanglements. Those accidents can cause horrible, even fatal injuries, but seeing emaciated manatees is different.

“Any time you see an injured manatee, it’s painful,” she said. “But seeing a manatee that’s starving to death is really awful.”

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[The race to rescue Florida’s diseased corals]

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