It has been a record-breaking year for manatee deaths, and Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Tuesday announced it will add an exhibit called Manatee Springs, a rehabilitation center at its main facility to care for sick and injured sea cows.
In July, the aquarium announced it was speeding up its plans to build a manatee rehab center at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs, saying Red Tide and the alarming number of manatee deaths on Florida’s east coast made the need more urgent. But that effort, expected to be completed by the end of the year, is out of sight of the public.
On Tuesday, the mayor of Clearwater and manatee rescue organizations joined the aquarium as it revealed plans to convert Winter the dolphin’s old pool into a glitzy manatee exhibit at its main facility near downtown Clearwater. It will take $10 million and two to three years to complete. Aquarium officials said its dual role of education and rescue fulfills an urgent need.
“We have already far surpassed any previous year in manatee deaths,” said Dr. James Powell, executive director of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, “so it is critical that more facilities get involved to try to rehabilitate and get these animals back out into the wild.”
He then handed over a check for $10,000 to the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership, a coalition of nearly two dozen agencies, universities and zoos that rescue sick and injured sea cows. They have been busier than ever this year.
Andy Garrett, state manatee rescue coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, took the check on behalf of the partnership, saying they expect another busy winter brought on by Red Tide, a spike in boat-related injuries and an unusual number of manatees found dead on Florida’s east coast due to lack of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon.
More than 900 manatees have died so far in 2021, and the total is expected to hit 1,200 by the end of the year. The previous record of 830 deaths was recorded in all of 2013, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports.
Concept drawings of the Clearwater aquarium‘s addition show a dazzling display for manatees in the old Winter Zone, named for the Dolphin Tale movie star that now has a much bigger, fancier setup at the aquarium. The pools under construction at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs will be reserved for the more urgent emergency manatee cases, said aquarium spokeswoman Kelsy Long. Those tanks can hold up to 12 manatees at a time. The new exhibit at the aquarium will hold up to six manatees, she said.
The new manatee rehabilitation expansion project at its main Clearwater facility will allow the public to see the work of rescuers and the work the aquarium does in Florida and internationally to save manatees.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium has been working with other manatee rescue agencies across the state, including SeaWorld and ZooTampa at Lowry Park. It has also worked with the government of Belize for more than 20 years to help establish laws and sanctuaries to protect their manatees. But this is the first time the marine animal hospital will have the filters and pools needed to take care of injured manatees on its own site.
Powell noted the irony of Winter’s old home getting converted into a manatee center since it is publicity like the story of the dolphin who was fitted with a prosthetic tail that gets the public to pay attention to what the animal hospital does.
Famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau first brought the attention to the plight of Florida’s manatees in a 1970 documentary. Powell noted that there were an estimated 1,000 manatees living in Florida’s waters at the time, and that number increased five-fold in the ensuing years because of laws and efforts to protect them.
“If it hadn’t been for that public support and awareness, I don’t know where we would be today,” Powell said. “We want people to be entertained but in the process we want to change potentially how people think about the animals we are trying to rescue and rehabilitate.”