When a female manatee became entangled in mangrove roots in the Everglades seven years ago, Jon Peterson joined the effort to rescue her.
Peterson, a supervisor of animal care at SeaWorld in Orlando, has helped rescue hundreds of manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, birds and other wildlife over the years, but he quickly discovered this would be no ordinary rescue. Because of the mangrove thicket, he and the other rescuers couldn't reach the eight-foot manatee by boat. And even if they extricated her from the roots, they couldn't find a path to lead her through the trees to open water.
"She found her way in but couldn't find her way out," said Peterson.
Members of the rescue team regrouped and returned three days later with a plan – and a helicopter. Rescuers located the manatee and put her into a stretcher. Then the helicopter flew in and hovered over the spot while rescuers attached a hook line to the stretcher.
"The helicopter just carried the animal over the mangrove line to a boat about a quarter-mile away," Peterson recalled. "The manatee was taken to Miami Seaquarium and rehabbed. To rescue, rehabilitate and release animals back into the wild – that's our entire goal. At Sea World we try to get animals healthy and back to the wild as quickly as we can."
With nearly 1,200 miles of coastline, Florida provides a haven for marine life, and when those animals are stranded on the beach, injured by boats, stunned by cold weather, or otherwise endangered, humans throughout the state stand ready to help.
NOAA Fisheries Service authorizes organizations and their volunteers, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, to respond to marine mammal strandings. This Southeast Region Stranding Network includes trained responders and veterinarians who respond to and rehabilitate live stranded marine mammals and investigate dead stranded marine mammals. In Florida, it includes the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge in Fort Walton Beach, Georgia Aquarium's Dolphin Conservation Field Station at Marineland in St. Augustine, Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University in Fort Pierce, the Jacksonville Zoo, Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute in Melbourne Beach, the Marine Animal Rescue Society in Miami, Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo, Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota and SeaWorld Orlando.
Most of those institutions are better known as premier Florida attractions where people can go to admire and learn about marine life, but behind the scenes, animal rescue teams stand ready to help marine animals in distress. Regulated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Stranding Network has teams of professionals highly experienced in animal rescue, but volunteers also play a role.
In 2010, the Florida Aquarium called on volunteers when thousands of sea turtles around the state were stunned by cold temperatures that left them incapable of swimming or eating on their own. The Aquarium in Tampa took in 18 of the turtles, and volunteers were crucial to the effort, according to Adam Duff, a member of the aquarium's rescue team.
"We had turtles in our tanks, in our wood shop – everywhere," Duff said. "Our job was to rehab them – to slowly warm them up and give them supportive care. It became an organization-wide effort involving the administrative team, environmental services people and volunteers, who are an essential part of the operation."
The Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota has two animal hospitals that treat sick and injured wildlife. The Sea Turtle Rehbilitation Hospital cares for sea turtles and is one of only three statewide that can care for turtles stricken by the papilloma virus, which causes tumors. Mote also has a Dolphin and Whale Hospital that cares for sick or injured dolphins and small whales.
But some animals have injuries so severe that they cannot be returned to the wild. In those cases, state or federal wildlife officials deem the animals non-releasable and they are given permanent homes.
For example, the Aquarium at Mote now provides a permannent home to Hang Tough, a green sea turtle who is blind, and Moonshine, a pantropical spotted dolphin that has a chronic liver condition. And some other turtles and manatees on display at Mote were raised in human care.
"These animals did not spend any time in the wild and would not be equipped to survive in nature," Rutger said.
Rescuing sea animals is more than an act of kindness, according to a volunteer for the Marine Mammal Conservancy, one of 12 rescue organizations in the U.S.
"A lot of what we do is for research into the health of our oceans," she said. "Marine mammals are sentinels of the ocean, at the top of the food chain, and if we see a problem with any of their species, it will surely trickle down to the rest of the species below them."
Tourists who have flexible schedules can watch the Marine Mammal Conservancy website to find out when a marine animal needs rescue. Sign up at www.marinemammalconservancy.org and you'll receive updates.
Contact Mote Marine Laboratory by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting the website at www.mote.org.
Anyone interested in volunteering for the Stranding Network in the Florida Keys should contact Stranding Network stations directly at 305-451-4774.
If volunteers are greatly needed (such as during an active rehabilitation during which we have live animals on property), hotels will often be accommodating with reduced rates.
Tom Valeo is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg.