So just what does it take to get over 6,500 pounds of manatees to new homes?
A lot of muscle. A lot of planning. And a lot of like-minded hearts. And that is where the story begins.
Shakespeare you ask? Well – yes. In a way.
It starts with a pair of manatees named Romeo and Juliet who are probably the most famous pair of manatees that have resided in managed care. Both have spent the majority of their lives at Miami Seaquarium, becoming residents before the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act were enacted in 1973 and 1972, respectively. Romeo was brought to the facility in 1957 from the Miami area. Juliet was rescued soon after in January 1958 from the Miami River in Miami-Dade County. While at Miami Seaquarium in 1975, Juliet gave birth to the first manatee conceived and born in a facility in the United States with Romeo as the father. According to a former Miami Seaquarium Animal Care Manager, she went on to have eight more calves at the facility and served as a surrogate mother to at least 14 orphaned calves.
Decades later in December 2009 and suffering from severe watercraft-related injuries, Clarity would join Romeo and Juliet at the Seaquarium after being rescued from Hunter Spring in Citrus County, FL.
Fast forward to 2023. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began developing plans to relocate Clarity, a manatee protected by the Endangered Species Act -- under the jurisdiction of the Service. While working on said plans, Miami Seaquarium requested a new home for Romeo and Juliet, as well. But age and size conditions of those two manatees made this a lift fit for Hercules himself. After months of intense planning, moving day arrived, along with an army of trucks, cranes, and an experienced team of manatee rescue and rehabilitation experts, all working through the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership.
As dawn crept across Biscayne Bay on the morning of December 5, a multi-organizational team, under the direction of the Service, moved into action. Operating much like a finely tuned and well-oiled machine, everyone was safely loaded (manatees included!) and on the road by 10:15 a.m. Romeo, Juliet, and Clarity were now on their way to new facilities; Romeo and Juliet to ZooTampa and Clarity to SeaWorld Orlando.
“After so many long hours of planning, it was really impressive and rewarding to see that caravan of manatee transport trucks from so many organizations traveling through South Florida with their precious cargo inside,” said Terri Calleson, the Service’s Florida Manatee Recovery Coordinator. “Our team faced very complicated logistics, but we assembled the best team of experts for the job from over eight organizations! It was an unprecedented effort.”
Everyone on the crew – from the people in the water, to the veterinarians and animal care staff in the trucks, the crane operators, and even the officers performing the blue light escorts – pulled together to overcome the obstacles and help these three manatees safely get to their new facilities.
“That morning, it didn't matter what logo people were wearing. What mattered was banding together to help these manatees and get them carefully and efficiently moved to their new homes. The Service very much appreciates the efforts of this team of “rock stars” and a special shoutout to SeaWorld Orlando and ZooTampa for taking on these manatees and providing them with the best care!” Calleson added.
In specially outfitted transport trucks, the three manatee passengers had attending veterinarians and animal care teams that closely monitored them throughout the ride. Romeo was the first manatee on the road, weighing over 2,100 pounds. Next was the team’s biggest challenge, Juliet, tipping the scales at a bit over 3,000 pounds. And then last but not least was Clarity who even at 1,530 pounds looked calf-sized next to Juliet! Despite the weighty cargo, by 5 p.m. that same day, all three manatees were safely in their new facilities and new pools, making new manatee friends.
“This was a very impressive partnership story, and I could not be prouder of the team that we put together to help these manatees! We had the best of the best working on this – the A+++ team! This was a very challenging, high-risk operation, and it was such a major success for these manatees because of our partners’ willingness to help the Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission by bringing their very specialized expertise and resources to the table. Staff at the Commission put in many long hours with us -- problem solving and leading the charge during the operation. Other Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partners just jumped right in to do whatever it took to help these manatees. It was awe-inspiring!” said Calleson.
The Service sends a huge, manatee-sized "thank you" to all involved in helping Romeo, Juliet and Clarity! Organizations assisting the Service with these transports and necessary resources included: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, SeaWorld Orlando, ZooTampa, University of Florida, The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Mote Marine Laboratory, Miami Seaquarium, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Save the Manatee Club, and the Service’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and Welaka National Fish Hatchery. And huge props to law enforcement from the Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision, and Miami-Dade County who ensured the safe passage for all in their travels that day – blue lights included!
What does the future hold for Romeo, Juliet, and Clarity? From this point forward, they will receive the highest level of care and treatment at their current critical care facilities. Experts from the Service and the rest of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership will evaluate their cases and special needs in determining the permanent homes for each of these manatees.