Bianca was a mere calf when she was rescued in 2021 from Florida’s ailing Indian River Lagoon. After a long recovery at SeaWorld she finally swam back into the wild, one of a huge number of rehabilitated manatees to be released this month in the state.
“Opening the stretcher and seeing her slowly swim out of it and exploring the natural environment for the very first time here at Blue Spring—it’s just amazing,” said Cora Berchem, manatee research associate at the Save the Manatee Club, who helped carry Bianca into the warm water near sunrise at Blue Spring State Park, north of Orlando. “We’re hoping that she doesn’t have too much of a learning curve, that she’ll be able to find friends here at Blue Spring and acclimate pretty quickly.”
Bianca was among a record 12 manatees to be released in one day at Blue Spring. Even more manatees were released this week in Crystal River and Apollo Beach, both near Tampa. The nearly two dozen releases so far this year represent a rare bright spot as an unprecedented die-off of Florida’s manatees continues.
Nearly 2,000 manatee deaths were recorded statewide in 2021 and 2022—a two-year record. Conservation groups say the mortalities represent more than 20 percent of the state’s population.
The calamity prompted wildlife agencies to go as far as to provide supplemental lettuce for starving manatees in the Indian River Lagoon, a crucial manatee habitat on Florida’s east coast where water quality problems have led to a widespread loss of seagrass, the sea cows’ favorite food.
Many of the sick and injured manatees rescued during this time now are ready to be released, and the wildlife agencies acknowledge they are eager for the bed space, so to speak, as the habitat problems that have contributed to the die-off will not be resolved anytime soon. The die-off has strained the aquariums, zoos and other rehabilitation facilities that have taken in the ailing manatees. SeaWorld plans to double its rehabilitation space to accommodate more manatees.
But the releases also represent an opportunity to celebrate the immense work that goes into saving a single manatee like Bianca, an orphan whose mother was injured and did not survive. Some rescued manatees are near death when they arrive at facilities like SeaWorld, and the recovery from starvation is much longer than that for other problems like red tide. For starvation the recovery can last six to eight months and much longer for orphaned calves like Bianca, who never learned basics from their mothers like finding food or warm water during the cold months.
“It’s been a very tough couple of years for the field biologists being out there. We’ve seen a lot of things that are really sad, depressing. It’s heart-wrenching,” said Monica Ross, senior research scientist at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. “The fact that these calves are getting a second chance, they’re able to get back out there and they look in great health, it really gives the huge kudos to the entire program, specifically the rescue group and the facilities for getting these animals into such a condition that they can have a second chance.”
The releases also come as things may be looking up for Florida’s manatees. The number of deaths this winter is down, an encouraging sign for the cold-sensitive animals, and the wildlife agencies say manatees in the wild appear to be in better health and less emaciated. That could be because the agencies’ lettuce program is helping, but it also could be because the die-off has reached a point where there are fewer manatees left to die. Nonetheless there also are spots in the Indian River Lagoon where the seagrass appears to be rebounding.
Florida’s manatees still face many threats. One concern is their dependence during the cold months on the warm waters around power plants, like the one on the Indian River Lagoon in Cape Canaveral where the wildlife agencies have been providing supplemental lettuce, said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, who has advocated for the iconic sea cows for some 50 years.
Over time power companies will move away from fossil fuels because of climate change, and manatees will need to be weaned off these artificially warm waters and transitioned to naturally occurring ones like Blue Spring, where the temperature year-round is 72 degrees. Rose also fears the losses related to the ongoing die-off may be generational.
“We’re seeing very, very few calves, and so not only did we have all the death that we experienced, reproduction and so forth has been very limited,” he said.
The manatee was downlisted in 2017 from endangered to threatened, a decision that has generated widespread outcry. In November the Save the Manatee Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper and Frank S. González García, a concerned citizen, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the manatee’s endangered status; the decision is still pending.
Meanwhile, Bianca and the other released manatees will be monitored for the next year to ensure they thrive in the wild. Sometimes orphaned calves struggle and are rescued again and returned to the wild after another short rehabilitation. But at Blue Spring, Bianca appeared ready to be free. She weighed a robust 900 pounds, with a nice round belly and round shoulders.
“Sometimes I wonder myself what goes on in their heads because they’re used to being in a pool, in rehabilitation, for a couple of years,” said Berchem of the Save the Manatee Club. “Hopefully they get used to being wild animals sooner than later.”