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!

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