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Freed from a Miami aquarium, Florida manatees Romeo and Juliet arrive at ZooTampa for care

The animals have swum on Earth for more than six decades. A new care facility may extend their long life.
 
Staff move Romeo, a manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, into a pool at ZooTampa on Tuesday.
Staff move Romeo, a manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, into a pool at ZooTampa on Tuesday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Dec. 5, 2023|Updated Dec. 8, 2023

Cynthia Stringfield had barely slept by the time she reached the Miami Seaquarium parking lot early Tuesday morning.

She had been awake since 4 a.m. and was restless the night before.

The day she’d anticipated for weeks was finally here: It was manatee moving day, and Stringfield was going along for the five-hour ride to Tampa.

This was not just any manatee. This was Romeo, a 2,100-pound hunk of mass who, at 65, was one of the oldest living manatees on Earth.

In recent weeks, a wave of attention had turned to Romeo and two of his manatee colleagues living at Miami Seaquarium after a viral drone video, viewed more than 20 million times online, showed him swimming all alone in what appeared to be a small, run-down aquarium pool with a dirty floor.

People decried what they said was manatee isolation of the semisocial creatures and called for the release of Romeo, Juliet and Clarity from the aquarium. It was the latest uproar against the facility, which also was under scrutiny after the death of its longtime resident orca, Tokitae, and incidents in which it was accused of mishandling animals.

Romeo, a manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, pokes his nose out of the water after being transported from the Miami Seaquarium to ZooTampa on Tuesday.
Romeo, a manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, pokes his nose out of the water after being transported from the Miami Seaquarium to ZooTampa on Tuesday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

At 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Romeo became the first of the trio to begin the journey to a new facility. His destination was ZooTampa, where Stringfield works as a critical care veterinarian. Juliet’s truck was set to leave 50 minutes later, also headed for Tampa, and Clarity would be delivered to SeaWorld in Orlando.

Given Romeo’s age, weight, health issues and the growing campaign to save him, the stakes were high. Severely injured or very sick manatees can die in transport.

“We’ll be in the middle of Florida, in a truck, with a manatee,” Stringfield said. “You need to be ready for that.”

With Romeo loaded into the box truck and three caretakers by his side to give him oxygen and keep him comfortable, the team set out.

There were 300 miles to go.

Staff prepare to place Juliet, a manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, into a pool at ZooTampa on Tuesday.
Staff prepare to place Juliet, a manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, into a pool at ZooTampa on Tuesday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

“Problems persisted” at Miami home

Romeo and Juliet had lived at Miami Seaquarium since the late 1950s, which predates animal protection laws passed in the 1970s, like the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Though the manatees are celebrated for their age, their longevity has complicated oversight efforts: While many rescued manatees in human care are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this duo is not. In the government’s eyes, these are “pre-act” animals.

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Questions about what to do with the pair bubbled up in recent years when a public campaign to spotlight living conditions at Miami Seaquarium gained traction.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection from July cited the aquarium and pointed to manatee isolation and a lack of shade among other observations. Manatees prefer to be around others, but Romeo was alone for months and his skin and eyes were exposed periodically to damaging sun when the tarp over his pool was removed, the report found.

A manatee cow and two calves swim off King's Bay near where volunteers and staff members with various agencies worked in 2018 with the United States Geological Survey during their annual manatee captures and health assessments program at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
A manatee cow and two calves swim off King's Bay near where volunteers and staff members with various agencies worked in 2018 with the United States Geological Survey during their annual manatee captures and health assessments program at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Environmental groups said conditions began to deteriorate when the Mexico-based The Dolphin Co. took over operations of the facility in 2021. Water quality issues, staffing disputes and animals exposed to long periods of sunlight were among their concerns.

In August, Tokitae, an orca whale who lived for decades at the Miami facility, died just months after Miami Seaquarium announced plans to relocate her back to her home waters. A veterinarian and The Dolphin Co. said she’d been in good health just days earlier. An autopsy unveiled in October cited old age and chronic illnesses as causes of death.

“The conditions there were certainly suboptimal, and problems persisted there longer than they should have,” said Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club.

After weeks of quiet planning between federal and state wildlife agencies and with the backing from a contingent of Florida manatee experts, the long-awaited green light to move Romeo, Juliet and Clarity came on Dec. 1.

Everyone agreed Tuesday would be the day the manatees would be moved. The state sent out a 35-page operational plan.

It was time for Romeo and Juliet to hit the road.

A crane lifts Juliet, a manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, while staff guide her into a pool at ZooTampa on Tuesday.
A crane lifts Juliet, a manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, while staff guide her into a pool at ZooTampa on Tuesday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Manatee on the move

Somewhere around Naples, Stringfield sent a text to the 11-person group chat created for Romeo’s transport.

“Exit 101 Naples,” she wrote. It was one of five designated checkpoints along the route where Stringfield would send a location update.

Most rescued or rehabilitated manatees in transport usually rest on their stomachs during the ride.

But not Romeo.

“We can’t ask him and he can’t tell us why, but he likes resting on his back,” Stringfield said. “That’s his happy place.”

Stringfield’s job was to sit in the passenger seat next to two oxygen tanks. Manatees may live in the water, but they are air-breathing creatures. Each time a manatee takes a breath, its nose opens slightly.

When Romeo inhaled and his nostrils widened, Stringfield pressed a button that controlled a valve in front of his nose to give him oxygen. She gave him air each time he inhaled, about three breaths every five minutes.

“We don’t usually need to do that,” Stringfield said. “But he is so old, and his health status was so up in the air.”

Romeo’s size also made caring for him especially challenging. His paddle, or tail, is so large that it reminds his caretakers of a whale tail. Sudden thrashing or quick jolts could spell trouble in close quarters.

The journey to ZooTampa included an escort, flashing lights and all, from both state and federal wildlife agencies. The four-woman team tried to keep the mood light.

That included customizing the lyrics from Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” which references the Shakespearean star-crossed lovers.

To the tune, the women sang: “Romeo we’ll transport you, so you won’t be alone, we’ve been waiting to get you a new home. You’ll be the prince, and we’ll be your princess. It’s a success story, ZooTampa just said … yes.”

Juliet, a manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, swims around a pool after staff help guide her in at ZooTampa on Tuesday.
Juliet, a manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, swims around a pool after staff help guide her in at ZooTampa on Tuesday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

The urgent push to #FreeRomeo

Advocacy group UrgentSeas posted the November drone video that increased attention to Romeo’s living conditions.

The video, purportedly taken Nov. 13, appears to show Romeo swimming alone. His small circle-shaped pool looks worn. The hashtag #FreeRomeo flashes at the end of the video.

Phil Demers, co-founder of UrgentSeas, told the Tampa Bay Times that “it’s a beautiful thing” to hear the manatees were relocated to other facilities.

“Public pressure played a monster role in the relocation of these manatees,” Demers said in an interview. “It’s every activist’s dream to enact and inspire change. Today we all get to celebrate an amazing result.”

MS Leisure, a subsidiary of The Dolphin Co., is suing the activist for defamation, trespass and nuisance over his social media posts highlighting the conditions of the Miami Seaquarium.

“We firmly believe this is a lawsuit aimed at silencing Mr. Demers’ effective activism highlighting the poor conditions of the animals held captive at the Miami Seaquarium,” Chris Carraway, a staff attorney at the Animal Activist Legal Defense Project, wrote in an email to the Times.

Though UrgentSeas’ video went online in November, scientists and officials involved in the plan to relocate Romeo and Juliet told the Times that the operation was already months in the making.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spearheaded the removal of Romeo and Juliet, according to interviews with the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership and ZooTampa staff. But because the animals weren’t under federal management because of their old age, the Miami aquarium had to agree to their release.

In a prepared statement, Miami Seaquarium said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has jurisdiction over Clarity, who was relocated to SeaWorld, and the federal agency began the process to move her months ago.

But that would mean Juliet would be left alone, which isn’t allowed under wildlife service regulations.

“Current legislation and regulations make it impossible to give a solution to keeping male and female manatees together, as reproduction is not permitted, and keeping them solitary is not recommended,” the aquarium wrote.

“And so, since no other options were available for both Romeo and Juliet, we believed it is best for them to be transferred to a facility that could host them in a social group,” the aquarium wrote.

All three manatees appeared to be experiencing health issues, according to a statement from Carli Segelson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Their conditions made transport high-risk, Segelson said, “but necessary for the animal’s future well-being.”

Romeo arrives to his new home

After nearly five hours on the road, Stringfield sent one final text to the Romeo transport chat, alerting the group that the truck was pulling into ZooTampa at last.

The zoo’s security team opened the gates and cleared the way for Romeo’s arrival.

Driving a manatee down Florida interstates for hundreds of miles is not the only difficult hurdle in the journey. Physically lifting a manatee is no simple task, either.

ZooTampa prepared specialized stretchers to lift Romeo from his transport truck. It’s a formidable process, with a lot of shifting and sliding to make sure the hefty sea cow is secure.

The crew then used a custom crane to place him in his new pool.

Molly Lippincott, the senior curator of Florida and marine life at ZooTampa, operated the crane. She was part of the team who traveled with Romeo, and when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached out to ZooTampa to take in Juliet, she was the one who advocated for taking Romeo, too.

She has helped care for 300 manatees in her nearly two-decade tenure at ZooTampa. But with Romeo weighing 2,100 pounds and Juliet 3,100 pounds, they’re some of the largest animals she has ever moved.

Juliet reached ZooTampa about two hours after Romeo. Both animals got blood tests and in-depth health assessments.

Romeo is now in two connected medical pools with five other males, and Juliet is with two females.

Juliet, a manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, swims around a pool after she was transported to ZooTampa on Tuesday.
Juliet, a manatee from the Miami Seaquarium, swims around a pool after she was transported to ZooTampa on Tuesday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Romeo and Juliet: A not-so-tragic ending

Most manatees in the wild don’t grow to be as old as Romeo and Juliet, who have been swimming on this planet for more than six decades, said Rose of the Save the Manatee Club. But with the right care, this duo could live for many more years.

Now that these manatees are relocated to new homes, there’s an opportunity for them to become companions for other rescued manatees in rehab, Rose said.

Over the next few weeks, ZooTampa staff will introduce themselves to Romeo and Juliet, and learn each animal’s behavior, habits and personality. It’s like making a new friend: It takes time, but the bond grows when nurtured.

“It’s not unusual when you do move animals that it takes them a few days to get comfortable and acclimate. But Romeo is already being social with other animals. It’s fantastic,” Lippincott said. “It’s hard to even express what a great feeling it was.”

Just days ago, Romeo floated alone in a pool, 300 miles from here.

Now he’s swimming up to other manatees. He bonks their noses, nuzzles their whiskers.

If all goes well, zoo staff hope this modern-day version of Romeo and Juliet ends happily.