Comet’s Trail A Manatee’s Journey
Comet and the Florida Manatees are marine mammals in the order of Sirenia that includes West Indian, Amazonian, West African manatees, and dugongs. The Florida Manatees are a sub-species of the West Indian Manatee. Manatees
do not have a description that easily creates a “Charisma Issue” in fact, they may remind us of what we don’t want to be! They are fat weighing from 2000 to 3000 pounds. They have wrinkled gray skin, which is 2 to 3 inches thick. They have tiny, squinty eyes, which close like the iris of a camera. They have pinhole ears, which cannot spatially relate to where noise is coming from. Their tail can propel them up to 20 mph. They use their pectoral flippers for guidance.
Manatees’ main threat for survival is Man. Manatees suffer from blunt trauma (being struck by boats), propeller cuts, and being caught in locks or in fishing lines. With their 3-foot long lungs extending close to the surface of their backs, the boat damage can be critical. Manatees suffer from Cold Stress much like frostbite in humans.
In June of 1999 the Columbus Zoo decided to increase its role in conservation by building an exhibit for Manatees. The total cost of this facility was in the range of $ 10,000,000. The facility is a 23,000 square foot building with 250,000 gallons of brackish (a mix of fresh and salt) water 190,000 in the main tank and 60,000 in the “Behind the Scenes” tank. A retractable roof was also included so that in warm weather the manatees could enjoy the sun’s rays.
On June 6, 1999 our four male manatees arrived at the Columbus Zoo from different facilities in Florida. Hurricane currently weighs 1670 pounds, is approximately 18 years old, and is 11 feet 1 ½ inches in length. Gene, who is the largest, currently weighs 1830 pounds, is 24 years old, and is 11 feet 5 inches in length. Gene is easily identified because of the white marks on his back from propeller blades. Dundee the skinny one (if you could EVER call any Manatee skinny) weighs 1185 pounds, is 15 years old and has become 10 feet 6 ¼ inches in length. Although Dundee is the son of Gene, they do not seem to have a father/son bond. And then the childish, small one called Comet. Comet was easily identified because he was the smallest, youngest, and usually kept to himself. He could usually be seen doing barrel rolls through the exhibit. They would play together and sleep together at the bottom of the tank. They would also come to the top for air almost in unison.
Comet was only 2 ½ years old and weighed approximately 700 pounds when he came to the Columbus Zoo. He was orphaned from his mother Mercury–near Jacksonville, Florida at the age of one. Mercury had been hit by a boat and died 5 months later. Comet was cared for at Sea World in Orlando until he came to the Columbus Zoo. After Comet was at the Columbus Zoo for about 8 months, the US Fish and Wildlife Recovery and Rehabilitation Program felt that it was time to allow Comet to return to the Wild.
Fresh water plants were shipped in to the Columbus Zoo for the last month prior to Comet’s release to get him accustomed to the wild vegetation. On February 12, 2000 Comet after gaining 250 pounds mainly on romaine lettuce — was flown back to Orlando to the Sea World holding facility.
On February 16, 2000 Comet was taken to Blue Spring State Park, which is about 30 miles northeast of Orlando. Comet was measured and given a freeze brand of “74” so that he could be identified at a later date.
He was fitted with a special belt that fit around the narrow part of his paddle. Attached to the belt was a lanyard with a buoy and a transmitter. The lanyard was designed to break free in the event it became entangled. The Sirenia Project, a biological research branch of the US Geographical Survey, was to conduct the monitoring of Comet.
The date of February 16, 2000 was chosen for Comet’s release because manatees huddle in Blue Spring State Park where the water stays a constant 75°. The Florida waters get too cold in the winter for manatees so they seek out the warmth of the spring waters. By releasing Comet here, the Sirenia Project, Sea World, and the Columbus Zoo hoped that Comet would learn to return to this place each winter. The date was also chosen because it was hoped that Comet might pair up with another Manatee who would show him the rules in the Wild. Sometimes there are as many as 100 manatees warming themselves in Blue Spring State Park. Rangers go out in a canoe each morning to attempt to identify the manatees and determine which manatees have arrived.
Comet arrived at Blue Spring State Park in a Sea World Animal Rescue Unit truck resting on foam padding. He had been transported in a sling or stretcher. He was measured, checked, and tested for body fat. It was strange seeing him lie on the ground and realize that he would soon be swimming “free.” Comet arrived at the Columbus weighing approximately 715 pounds and was now being carried to the water weighing approximately 925 pounds.
As the time drew near for Comet to travel down to the water’s edge, they asked for another lifter. I quickly threw my camera to my husband and volunteered to help. Approximately 10 of us carried Comet down to the water’s edge. With five people on each side of the huge sling, my main concern was “Don’t get your feet tangled up and fall!” I thought I had the easy end of Comet. I had his tail! I didn’t have to carry the heavy “head.” It was only later that I wondered what would have happened if he had decided to wag his tail!
It was with mixed emotions that we set Comet free — elation that Comet was back in the wild, sadness that we had to say “Goodbye” to him. Comet swam to freedom trailing his satellite transmitter behind him. Initially he swam up the “run” at Blue Spring State Park. He was tracked through Lake Monroe and was seen with other manatees. Finally it was determined that he lost his transmitter. They found him, gave him a physical, and re-attached his transmitter. Again he lost his transmitter, but this time Comet could not be found. For months, it was feared that Comet was “lost”!
In December 2000, a manatee arrived at Blue Spring State Park that Ranger Wayne Hartley a true expert on Manatee identification could not identify. Ranger Hartley assigned him the number “U19″(Unidentified # 19). The area where his freeze brand was located was covered with algae and Comet couldn’t be identified.
Finally on January 25, 2001, the Sirenia Project in cooperation with the Columbus Zoo confirmed that “U19” was indeed Comet! Comet will be looked for each year at Blue Spring State Park but he won’t be tracked by satellite. Comet’s Trail continues. He continues to Roam Free.
Columbus Zoo now has been sent two new, young manatees from Florida Brooks is 1 ½ to 2 years and Trident is 2 to 2 ½ years old. For now, they are keeping Hurricane, Gene, and Dundee company in the large tank at the Columbus Zoo. Maybe some day — Brooks and Trident will follow Comet’s Trail.
Manatees An Educator’s Guide from Save the Manatee Club, Judith Delaney, Wendy Hale, & Renee Stone, Revised by Nancy Sadusky & Patti Thompson, 1996.
Manatee Lecture, Harbor Springs Oceanographic Institute, Dr. Gregory Bossart, Veterinarian, Seaquarium, February 7, 2001.
Columbus Zoo Staff and Columbus Zoo Website