Georgia Aquarium rescues two orphaned manatees as species fights for survival

Hundreds of manatees are dying on the Florida coast because of boats, garbage, and a major lack of food.
Published: Mar. 29, 2022 at 5:14 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - Depleting manatee numbers around Florida are causing a shockwave across the southeast. The Georgia Aquarium, along with others in the region, are stepping up to help save the marine mammals lovingly referred to as “sea cows.”

Last year, over 1,000 Florida manatees were killed. 2022 is tracking to be another deadly year for the manatee with over 400 already killed – meaning less than 6,000 are left around Florida.

“We are in another situation with another species that if we as people don’t step up and help them as a species, they won’t survive,” said Dr. Tonya Clauss, the Vice President of Animal and Environmental Health at Georgia Aquarium.

Experts say many are killed or injured from commercial and recreational boats, fishing gear, and garbage. Their shrinking habitat also a major concern.

“There’s a lot of pollution going into the coastal waterways and that is having a very, very negative impact on seagrasses and other vegetation,” Dr. Clauss said.

The lack of food is causing them to starve to death, which is how the Georgia Aquarium rehab program has recently taken in two manatee calves. They were found severely undernourished and underweight. The 160-pound male was found with a dead female believed to be his mother. The 175-pound female was found suffering from cold stress.

“These animals are very young, they would not have survived in the cold winter temperatures in the wild if they had not had some human care,” Dr. Clauss explained.

CBS46 was given access to the off-campus site where the two are being rehabbed. Our crew was kept at a safe distance because the medical staff is limiting human contact with the animals because they will be released into the wild as soon as they are healthy.

They require round-the-clock monitoring and feeding.

“Because they are a herbivore, we are able to give them tons and tons of lettuce and other vegetation, we are able to get them to grow and to be healthy enough for release,” Dr. Clauss said.

Healthy adult manatees are typically 9-13 feet long and weigh 1,000-3,500 pounds. While the majority are around the Florida coast, some are known to travel up the eastern coastline into Georgia, the Carolinas, and as far north as Massachusetts.

Facilities in Florida are overwhelmed with the number of manatees needing care and rehabilitation. This winter, Florida wildlife officials started subsidizing wild manatee diets by feeding them more than 150,000 pounds of lettuce.

“There are literally lettuce buffets being put out for the wild manatees that do not have enough food to eat,” Dr. Clauss said.

As for the two here in Atlanta, they won’t be the last ones the Georgia Aquarium rescues. They are hoping the successful recovery of their two new orphans will mean they can continue to play a role in the survival of the manatee.

“I am ecstatic that these animals look as good as they do right now. Makes me very happy. And this is something that I have hoped for and waited for, for many, many years, for us to be able to do this,” Dr. Clauss said.

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