In the hour following a cloud-covered sunrise Thursday morning, Ernie took one last swim around the Fishbowl Spring. After six years in captivity, the football-shaped manatee was about to go free. Ernie seemed to sense something special was about to happen, as he curiously watched the swarm of activity around his home at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park.
A throng of park rangers, wildlife officers, well-wishers and media had gathered to participate in the first leg of Ernie's ride to freedom, which would culminate hours later with his release into the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral.
While Ernie circled the Fishbowl, park manager Tom Linley discussed strategy with veterinarian Mark Lowe and others who would help corral Ernie. Several cameras focused on the scene, including those from the CBS news show 48 Hours.
Back in the water, Ernie _ tempted by the monkey biscuits that manatee handler Betsy Dearth was holding _ glided toward the chain-link manatee isolation area. Dearth backed into the enclosure, and Ernie followed.
Volunteer Nina Gynan entered the water and kept the other eight manatees away from the enclosure with gentle nudges and edible bribes.
Both ends of the cage were closed, trapping Dearth and Ernie. Workers from the park, the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then guided the cage toward the shore.
An agitated Ernie rolled onto his back and pressed his gray, whiskered face against the fencing separating him from the other manatees. He gave them a soft nuzzle.
"Aw, look, bye-bye kissies," said manatee advocate Helen Spivey as the animals came nose to nose on either side of the chain-link.
Ernie would be making the trip alone. Adair, a female manatee also scheduled for release, was to go to the East Coast with Ernie on Thursday but Lowe recently determined that Adair is pregnant. She will be released in the next few weeks after officials secure a special vehicle that will provide a safer, more cushioned ride.
Since both animals had been rescued on the East Coast, that was where they would be set free. Each had been injured by crab trap lines, treated for their injuries and then, three years ago, transported to Homosassa Springs for reacclimation into a more natural setting.
A vehicle from Sea World arrived, and the crew joined the others surrounding the cage. One end was opened and the team slipped a sling under the 1,060-pound animal and hauled him out toward a waiting crane.
"I don't believe it," several observers said in unison, recalling previous manatee removals that always ended with thrashing animals and ducking team members.
Ernie didn't even flap his tail until the team was hooking the sling onto the crane and lifting the animal to the Sea World truck. His front flippers were all that were visible from the sides of the sling.
The crane operator carefully threaded the sling through the trees and up to the truck. Once Ernie was lying belly-down on a cushion, the team wet him down and removed the sling.
Linley stepped back and grinned. "It's THEIR baby, now," he said.
About three hours after the truck left Homosassa Springs and more than 100 rain-soaked miles across the state, the team prepared to release Ernie at the Banana River in the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge.
Because a crane was unavailable,the team had to haul Ernie by hand in the sling to the water's edge. There, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attached a radio transmitter to Ernie's tail and lowered him into the water.
"It went fine," Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge manager Cameron Shaw said of the release, "except that we all got as wet as a manatee.
Dearth watched quietly as Ernie explored his new surroundings, then swam out of sight.
"Betsy was the last one out of the water," Shaw said. "I guess she had to say goodbye."