Friday, August 30, 2019

Manatees And Friends

Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
I remember many years ago, reading an article in the Corpus Christi newspaper about the discovery of a manatee in our Ship Channel.  At the time I thought "That must be a hoax, manatees aren't real."  Seriously, I thought they were some extinct creature from prehistoric times, and certainly I never dreamed that I would see one in my lifetime!

More recently I discovered, of course, that manatees were real... and even seemingly plentiful, in coastal Florida waters... and that we would become accustomed to seeing their dark hulking shadows looming around our boat!  Sightings of swishes on the water, and even rolling backs, waiving tails and snouts poking up from the water's surface, while still remarkable, are a common occurrence in our Cruising life.

Since settling here in Puerto Rico, we see packs of manatee in Bahia de Patillas every week, and they even seem to come when people are around!  I guess they're as curious about us as we are about them!

So... of course when I heard that there was a conservation group on our island, I had to check it out!  Centro de Conservación de Manaties de Puerto Rico is part of Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico, where Marine Biology students serve as volunteers while putting in the lab hours toward their degrees! Marine Biology has always interested me!  How lucky these young people are to have such a facility where they can earn their degrees while contributing to manatee conservation in a such a positive way!  And TODAY... WE got to be a part of their efforts!

Seeing manatees so often now, we forget that they are actually an endangered species.  They need our help to spread awareness about the many ways that mankind is damaging their environment and even directly hurting them!  Without exception, every manatee we have seen up close in nature, has been marked by prop scars.  Manatees move slowly and lurk below the water's surface in the very bays and waterways that also serve as recreational boating meccas!  They move along the seabed, eating the vegetation that grows where humans play.  Seeing the damage we do to these gentle giants is very sad... but it is nice to know that there are organisations working to mitigate the effects of mankind on nature.

Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
The Manatee Conservation Center people are ready to spring into action whenever a manatee, or other coastal wildlife species, need human intervention in a good way!

The University has a specially designed boat just waiting for the call!  The boat has the propeller mounted further forward than usual, so that there is less of a possibility of further injuring their rescue-ees!  The stern is open and sinks down, creating a loading ramp in the water to facilitate boarding of these huge sea mammals.

We listened to the stories of how the resident animals, both temporary and permanent, came to be here.  It is sad to know that humans have caused such pain through our ignorance and carelessness.  I don't want to get on a soap box, but let me just say that we could all use a little education on ways we can easily correct behaviours that are harmful to marine life.

Right away we noticed how neat and clean the facility is.
So, with that being said, lets get on to sharing our experience here!  We drove nearly two hours, with morning traffic, to arrive by 8am.
There are tours offered at different levels.  We found a discount for the Caretaker-For-A-Day level tour, which includes a chance to actually prepare the food and FEED the animals!  We also got a very nice t-shirt!  Today we were the only ones here so we had a private tour!

Our guide Paola is a marine biology student here, and she was able to answer ALL of our many questions about the animals.  She took us in and got the paperwork done quickly.  We changed into our cool new shirts and got busy learning about the fascinating work they do here!

Manatee skeleton

The bone structure in their flippers is eerily LIKE HUMANS!  

They even have finger nails!
Their bones are less porous than ours, and much heavier!  This is a rib!

Total Hands-on experience!

Each resident has a space on the medical board for documenting treatment.
The conservation center is not a zoo, nor is it an aquarium or any other kind of entertainment focused facility.  It is strictly for rescue-rehabilitate-release!

Throughout our visit, it was clear that utmost care and attention is given to limiting the trauma to these animals, as well as maintaining the distance between human and wild animal as much as possible.  The temporary residents here are treated with as little direct human contact as is possible, with the goal being reintroduction to the wild once they're fully rehabilitated.  They don't want the animal to learn to seek humans for food or any other close interaction.  They want them to be able to return to their lives in the wild... so touching is prohibited.  Even feeding is done without direct hand contact!
Manatees are released with a tracker for the first two years to make sure they are thriving. Then trackers are removed!
Unfortunately, some of the animals here will never be able to return to their former lives.  Those who are permanently damaged, with no chance of a normal life, are kept here until they die.  Those animals are gentled and even trained to perform specific behaviours that make interaction with their human caretakers safer and easier.  They are cared for and studied, so that we can hopefully learn how we can increase their numbers in the wild.

And everyone has a spot on the food board that guides food prep!
A strict schedule of care is implemented after initial examinations are done.  Each animal is placed on a regimen of care that is designed to the individual animal's condition.  The animals are monitored and periodically re-examined to document their progress.  It's a pretty slick operation!

Sadly, some do not make it.  When an animal dies here, their bodies are used to further the education process.  Necropsies are done by the doctors with students assisting.  What an amazing, hands-on experience these students are getting!  They learn first hand about the anatomy and bodily functions, as well as gaining knowledge about what it was that killed the animal.

This turtle damaged by a prop didn't make it.
Many HUMAN medical supplies are used to treat the animals!!

Bruce is pointing out the supplements HE takes!  
Human baby formula is used to feed the young manatees!
They eat a LOT of iceberg lettuce!
Much of the food and supplies are donated by businesses on the island.  This just makes me love Puerto Ricans all the more!  They are so matter-of-fact about just doing the right thing!  I asked if there were ever shortages, thinking maybe we could help collections from our area... but Paola said that they always had what they need from regular donors!
Doesn't look like much, but they can't stockpile it because it has to be fresh!
After an introduction to what goes on here, we were taken out back to see the current residents.  Photos are restricted due to regulations and the only ones allowed to be taken of the animals themselves must be watermarked for identification.  Paola took so many photos to document our visit for us!  It was fun getting to be IN the photos!  It also gave me a chance to put the camera away and enjoy the moment... and the moment was MAGICAL!  We both felt like little kids!

The first resident we met was a brown pelican named Coco.  Coco is a permanent resident here and is undergoing rehabilitation for severe arthritis in one leg.  She limps noticeably as she wobbles along behind us.

Yes... they let her out of her room and she followed us around like a puppy!
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
There are other birds here, birds of prey like hawks, falcon and even a couple of owls.  They are even more limited from human contact to keep them wild.  They are here for various reasons, in including several broken wings and even an eye injury.  We only got a brief peek at them and no photos.  But we could certainly hear the noisy things!

We learned about how the facility works to keep the natural diet of the animals available.  They even grow natural water plants for the manatees and turtles.  They go one step further in keeping it natural - keeping koi and tilapia that live in the tanks with the water plants.  A symbiotic relationship is formed between the water plants and fish. Oxygen produced by the plants is used by the fish, who in turn keep the tanks naturally clean.  The fish are not used as food for the turtles or seabirds.  They use small fish (also donated) that are more like their natural diet for that!

Two types of vegetation provide some variation to their diet.
Other tanks are used as breeders for the koi and tilapia
Walking across the tank area to see the water filtration room
Students and volunteers have to keep the filtration system clean daily!  It's their least favorite job! That's a LOT of filters!
Every detail must be attended to in order to maintain optimal health for the residents here.  A huge bank of water filters is constantly cleaning the water in the tanks.  Salinity is monitored several times daily and corrections made when appropriate.

Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Back in the "kitchen", student volunteers were already working on preparing the food for the animals.  We went back inside and washed our hands.  There is a strict protocol that ensures the health of the animals.  Food prep rules are strictly observed.  Bruce and I prepared the diet for one of the manatees.  The whiteboard had a list of foods and the weights of each, that we must measure and cut up for her.
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Now... I've teased you long enough!  We met a couple of turtles who are permanent residents due to improper care in captivity at other facilities.  All of the turtles in residence have shell damage.  One of the success stories we met was Chely!  She is scheduled for release soon, but for now, we got to insert her prescribed vitamins into the bellies of minnows, then feed them to her using a long forceps. Not only does this provide a disconnect between the human hand and food, but it also protects us from injury from her powerful and eager beak!

Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Once her pills were administered, we got to continue to feed her until the pile of fish was gone!  It was an amazing experience!  Yes, she sees humans as a source of food... and I wonder if she will seek humans once she's returned to the wild.  Maybe she will provide some responsible snorkeler with an amazing experience once she's released!  Hopefully, nobody will take advantage of her.  It will be obvious that she has been rehabilitated with the huge epoxy patch on her shell!

Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico

Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Finally, the manatees!  This is what we came here for!  There are three manatees here, two young ones who are still being formula-fed.  They're so cute, even though they're bigger than us!  I don't remember the story of one, but the other was actually brought here because her mother abandoned her.

She was being born in the lagoon, and a paddle boarder was there to witness it.  He invaded the space, taking video of the birth, but after the baby was born, the mother ran away.  This person caused the baby to be left because of his ignorance.  It's heartbreaking that this baby now has to be bottle-fed by humans, instead of growing up with her mother.  People, please keep your distance and do not initiate contact with these wild animals!

Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
These babies will be bottle fed until they are ready to eat vegetation on their own and reach a certain weight, then they will be re-introduced to the wild.  They are scheduled for release this coming December. They will wear the tracking devices for a year and a half or two years.  If it looks like they are thriving, the trackers will be removed!  They are success stories! Hopefully!

Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Next we met an adult manatee who is a permanent resident.  Guacara bears the marks of a collision with a boat.  The impact was so violent that it caused her permanent lung damage.  She is unable to maintain buoyancy and so, must live out her life here.  She lives here in this tank that has benches around the edges so that she can perch herself. If she didn't have a way to rest, she would drown.  We learned that when manatees sleep, they do so beneath the water's surface.  Breathing is an involuntary action in which their bodies surface, the nostrils open to take in air, and then they sink down again... all while remaining asleep.  Since Guacara can't float herself, she will never be able to survive in the wild again.
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
She has been trained to perform some behaviours to enable her caretakers to monitor her health and attend to her needs.  It's a reward system.  First, the food of choice is determined by offering her several different things until she shows a preference.  Then that food is given immediately after she performs a behaviour, directed by a hand signal.  They blow a whistle once she has completed the behaviour so that she know a treat is coming.  She will wait for it.  It's amazing to see her doing her thing!  The trainers tell us that Guacara is not always cooperative.  She gets mad, or in a mood sometimes, and refuses to do what she's asked.  But today, she was happy and did her thing for us to see!

Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
It was amazing!  We got to look into Guacara's mouth and see how she eats.  She has only molars to chew her food, but they're further back, away from the front of her mouth.  She first uses these thick whiskers and the muscles in her muzzle to bring the food into her mouth. It's very much like the end of an elephant's trunk. The "lips" actually have a hard area that is used to crush or grind the food before it goes on in.    She is trained to open her mouth so that she can be examined and healthcare administered.  She seemed to like it.

We also got to touch her.  Her skin is actually kind of flaky.  This is one of mother nature's amazing little details.  The flaking skin keeps algae and barnacles from becoming permanently attached!  Her skin was sort of rough and leathery, but you could feel the blubber beneath.  A thick layer of fat makes her feel a little "jiggly"!  A. Maz. Ing!

Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
After the photo shoot, we got busy feeding her.  She was happy with the fruit and veggies, and ate them right up.  Then we threw the iceberg lettuce into the pool.  She will get both nourishment and entertainment while she swims around grabbing the floating lettuce.

She gets fed morning and afternoon.  Ten pounds of lettuce and maybe another 10 pounds of the other foods combined.  Seems like it isn't a lot, but she looks really happy and well fed!

Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Photo: Centro de Conservación de Manatíes de Puerto Rico
Once feeding time was over, we received our certificates and said our goodbyes.  The conservatory NEEDS volunteers!  Bruce and I are thinking of doing it, but the only thing holding us back is that you have to commit to four hours per week and it's a long drive for us.

To volunteer, you must complete an online educational course, then you can sign up for your hours.  Right now, they have no non-student volunteers at all!  When you volunteer, you will learn how to do all phases of care, from healthcare, to feeding, to habitat maintenance.  We're still thinking about it... but if you live closer to Bayamon and can spare four hours per week, please sign up!

All in all, the day was just about as wonderful as you might imagine.  We were allowed to interact with the animals in a responsible way, while learning what NOT to do when we encounter manatees in the wild.  And believe me, I've considered bringing lettuce out to the bay to feed them. Must resist!

I know that there are laws in the US about contact with manatees, but in other places, we have witnessed people giving them fresh water.  The manatees NEED fresh water to survive, but they must be able to get it on their own, so giving it to them does them no favours.

Come to the conservatory, take the tour, volunteer... and learn what you can do if you want to really help these unique and endangered creatures!

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Off On Another Tangent

We're working very hard these days to mix the good with the not-so-good times.  Our generator repair is dragging on with the need for new parts or replacing the wrong parts ordered almost daily... I'm trying to keep from slipping into the abyss by running as fast as I can toward JOY!

While cruising the Facebook in the morning, I saw mention of a place called Survivor Falls.  I quickly flip over to Google Maps, always open on another tab, and find this place.

That's all it took for a plan to spring to life.  I texted our Cruiser Friends and they were in!  Off we went on another tangent! This spot is close enough to our home, that we can pick up and go on a whim!

The drive in is a little bit of a challenge.  The last hill down into the ravine is super narrow and very steep.  But I've become accustomed to these roads and hardly blinked an eye as we plunged down to the bottom and crossed an even more narrow and rickety-looking bridge.  These mountain bridges just can't all be receiving regular maintenance.  This is when I really appreciate having an all-wheel-drive vehicle!

Looking upstream from mid-bridge...
Looking downstream from mid-bridge. There are people down there who smiled and waived at us!
Just across the bridge, I joined several parked cars and pulled off the road.  The ground is pretty muddy from recent rains, but again, that all-wheel-drive.  I'm counting heavily on it!

The trailhead was easy to find and I set off in my flip-flops.  Big mistake!  Another big mistake was wearing that blousy swimsuit coverup that kept getting in my way as I attempted to scramble over the moss and mud covered boulders and tree roots that littered the trail!

The trail opened up to the river very soon, and we all stepped out from the bushy trail into the open with jaws dropped!  This place is miraculous!

The water here is very cool, but there was no stopping me!  Bruce and I got right in... well, up to the knees anyway!  The little fishes nibbled at our feet and we delighted at the tickling sensation as we sat there, in no particular hurry to move on.

Looking upstream from the first stop.
Looking downstream toward the bridge.
The lovely April
The boys exploring the trail.

I was kind of content to stay right here and go no further, but Bruce took off up the trail toward the falls.  Soon he returned with the news that the trail, although pretty muddy in spots, was passable.  Well why not?  We've come this far!  We filed off after Bruce into the unknown!

It seemed like a long time that we scrambled along the dark trail.
This is not the most challenging trail we've trekked, but it's pretty slippery!  We are deep in the forest and the scents and sounds are delicious!  This truly is paradise on earth!  Suddenly, again we broke out into the sunshine.  Making the last scramble up between two huge boulders, we were as close to the falls as we would get on foot!  The rest would be a swim!

The water looks calm, but it is deceptive as there is a pretty steady current spilling out from between the rock walls closer to the grotto beneath the falls.  Bruce swam up through there until he could no longer fight the current, then rode the water back into the open pool.  It was fun!

We're in heaven!  Funny thing:  April and Burt also say one of my favorite quotes: "I wonder what the poor people are doing today?".  I knew we would like these people!  Well, the truth is... the poor people (that includes us) were glued to the computer screen back home, watching as the little rain event grew into a tropical storm and threatened to become a hurricane before reaching us!  All of this while we remained blissfully unaware until we returned home!

And here we were playing out a scene from Survivor - completely unaware!
What's yer freakin' hurry???
Since we were so close to Charco Azul, one of our other old favorite spots, we cut our time here short and scurried back down the river to the car.  Bruce was ready to move on, so he took the lead.  he was highly visible in his orange bike-riding shirt!  Hey... wait up!

Come on!  You can make it!
Whoops!  Watch your head!  There are TWO branches!
Nope, I don't need any help...
I've got this!
It might be further down than I remembered...
This trail leads downstream.  We will save it for next time!
That's our car in the back to the right.
Hurry!  No room on this bridge! That lady can hustle when needed!
There must be trails further up and downstream, because we only saw one other couple, yet there were two cars with people unaccounted for.  We can't wait to explore more of this place that has instantly become our Number 1 destination!  We're already planning what we'll bring next time, and it's less than an hour from our home!

Ten minutes up the road and we arrived at the parking for Charco Azul.  Burt and April haven't been there yet, so we couldn't come this close and not take them.
We took off down the trail with our picnic!
There will be evidence of Hurricane Maria for many years to come as the canopy has been tragically damaged.
But there is hope in the new growth that is bursting all around us!

The sights, sounds and scents of the forest are intoxicating and I can't imagine how we ever thought of living anywhere else!  How can other places be as enchanting as this???

A large tree snail can't hide from me!

A tree has fallen across the path since our last visit here.
Last bridge before the charco!
There was water streaming down the trail in sheets in many areas along the trail.  We've had some rain in the mountains recently, that is evident.  When we reached the pool, we found a number of people already here enjoying the serenity.

We staked out a spot on a bench beneath the shade, and April joined me in the water while the boys enjoyed... whatever it is boys enjoy when the girls have gone! Burt is a big history buff, which is right up Bruce's alley!  They could talk forever!  April and I had some girl time as we crept slowly into the water!  Having left my water shoes back in the car, and because we just got out of the water... I was OK with just standing waist deep and enjoying the second half of my exfoliation by minnow!

Taino Sun
More water in the upper pool than last time we were here.

The growing shadows draped the forest in peaceful silence
What a perfectly delightful day! We're very much enjoying exploring with our new friends, and showing them our old favorites while finding new places to enjoy!  Imagine our shock when we arrived back at home with that warm fuzzy feeling, only to have it dissipate in an instant I when took up the computer and found that the storm in the Atlantic had been making a name for himself... and it was Dorian!

That sent us off on a totally new and unwelcome tangent!  Thankfully, after three days of constant uncertainty and anxiety, the day the storm passed us to the east, our weather was more calm than normal.  I hope we can continue to reap the good fortune that we currently enjoy.