Conservation Guide: SeaWorld Expands Manatee Care Facility
As another deadly season begins for the Florida manatee, SeaWorld expands its critical care facility, just in the nick of time.
Her name is Number 44. She received this auspicious name because she’s the 44th manatee rescued by SeaWorld in 2022. Despite the severity of her injuries, she’s one lucky girl to receive care at SeaWorld Orlando’s Manatee Rehabilitation Area.
“This animal came in with extremely deep propeller wounds,” explains Supervisor of Rescue, SeaWorld Orlando, Brant Gabriel. “Judging by the size of the injuries, I would say it’s possibly from a larger barge.”
They brought Number 44 in with her baby, who had not been weaned. “The baby stays with her, is no longer under care but eating enough lettuce to put on weight continually,” says Gabriel. “Everybody wants your kids to go big and strong, and we do the same. We make sure these little guys are constantly putting on weight.”
Number 44 is just one of many manatees that have received care at SeaWorld in 2022. As of August 25, SeaWorld has rescued 52 manatees at its Orlando facility, and the numbers continue to grow. SeaWorld has become one of the largest manatee rescue operations in the world and maintains one of only five manatee critical care facilities in the country.
The manatee population has been dying off in massive numbers, especially along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Approximately 1,100 manatees died in 2021, which is 15 percent of the total population in Florida. The cause is a lack of food because of the seagrass beds being destroyed by toxic algae blooms and pollutants.
Gabriel agrees that the lack of vegetation is a tremendous problem. “Our rescue numbers were elevated last winter. The manatees are congregating to the warm water sources, so you have a tremendous number of manatees trying to feed around the same vegetation.”
Food isn’t a problem at SeaWorld, where they receive two mammoth deliveries of romaine lettuce each week to feed the recovering mammals.
To get an idea of how much lettuce is in that delivery, it’s estimated that a manatee eats around 10 to 15 percent of their body weight in vegetation each day. To break that down, a 1,000-pound manatee would most likely eat between 100 and 150 pounds of food a day. If you consider many adult manatees weigh between 2,600 to 2,800 pounds and can even grow to 3,500 pounds, that’s a lot of romaine.
The most dangerous time of year to be a manatee is April 1 through November 15, when manatee zones require boaters to slow down to prevent manatees from being killed or injured, much like Number 44. Boat strikes are another major threat to Florida manatees.
The Future of Number 44
When they brought Number 44 into SeaWorld, her situation was dire. “The front left flipper or pectoral flipper on this manatee was partially amputated,” explains Gabriel. “Several surgeries later, the upper pectoral flipper was removed in surgery. It still has a lot of healing going on, a lot of scar tissue.”
Senior Vet Technician at SeaWorld Orlando, Heidy Clifford, is treating Number 44 with laser therapy to promote healing. They’re also using massage therapy to make sure the muscles heal correctly.
The Vet Technicians work in a tri-pool complex with a large round pool flanked by two slightly smaller oval pools. SeaWorld recently expanded and interconnected all three pools with shade coverings. Instead of diving into the pools to treat the manatees, SeaWorld has a critical care lift floor that raises the animals safely to the waterline to administer medical care and treatment and perform health checks.
Their primary goal is rehabilitation and release back into their natural habitat. Gabriel is optimistic about Number 44’s chances. “She’s had previous births out in her natural habitat. She had a baby and was nursing the baby when she came in. The baby is no longer nursing and eating lettuce. She’s finishing up her healing process, and even though she has one flipper, she’s definitely a release candidate; once medically cleared, we will release her.”
Gabriel emphasizes that this is a team effort. SeaWorld is a member of the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP), which includes other key partners and manatee rescue centers such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, South Florida Museum, and Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park.
And her name?
The number 44 is controversial. The Egyptians consider it one of the most fortunate numbers, while the Chinese consider it the most unfortunate, synonymous with death. Either way, Number 44 will lose this fortunate or unfortunate moniker soon. Gabriel explains, “The doctor who has contributed so much time and energy to this case will be offered the chance to name her.”
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