BRADENTON — Snooty, the record-setting manatee that chomped lettuce, entertained school field trips and served as the official mascot of Manatee County, was found dead Sunday morning. The 69-year-old icon had been trapped underwater.
The discovery closed the South Florida Museum's aquarium for the day, attracted national attention, and saddened many who visited him as kids or with kids of their own.
His birthday Friday was the last in the longest recorded life of any manatee kept in captivity.
In their morning check through Snooty's tank, Parker Manatee Aquarium staff found him stuck underwater in an area used to access plumbing, said Jeff Rodgers, provost and chief operating officer of the museum.
A hatch blocking off the small underwater hallway had come loose, he said. Snooty's fellow manatees, much smaller than he is, were able to enter and exit back into their main tank, but at 1,300 pounds, Snooty may have been unable to turn around.
"It appears that Snooty was able to get into the area, but he was not able to extract himself from that situation," Rodgers said.
Snooty's charisma left an impact both on one-time visitors and long-time companions.
Geoffrey Patton, 69, who now lives in Maryland and works for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, used to teach science at Southeast High School in Bradenton, and wanted to learn more about how manatees hear.
One brief experiment became a long research project, and Patton became close with Snooty in the 1980s and '90s.
"I had a lot of fun interacting with Snooty," he said. "Really a special soul in the universe."
His daughter, Julie Lawson, 38 of Washington, D.C., remembered going to the museum with her dad and "feeling like we knew him better than everybody else who was there."
Sunday afternoon, Lawson had to explain to her 6-year-old son why she was crying. Both she and Patton said the manatee was part of their family.
Snooty was a beloved mascot of the museum, with manatee merchandise lining the gift shop and yearly birthday celebrations featuring "cake" made of pineapples, strawberries and carrots.
"It doesn't take a whole lot to realize the impact Snooty had on this community. Just look around you," said John Quinlan, vice president of the museum's board of trustees. "He's been a part of the very fabric of our lives."
The museum's web site featured a live "Snooty Cam," tracking the animal during museum hours. Rodgers said the camera would not have shown Snooty's death, as they turn it off overnight, but that they would examine other security footage.
Manatees are mammals which can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes when sleeping, but then must come to the surface for air, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
James Powell, a Sarasota manatee biologist, said Snooty leaves a legacy at the aquarium and for manatees in general.
"He's been a manatee ambassador forever, and I think he actually had done his part in terms of increasing people's awareness and love for this creature that has helped contribute to their own conservation," he said.
Patton agreed, calling Snooty a "groundbreaker."
Brynne Anne Besio, the museum's CEO, called the death a "heartbreaking accident" in a press release.
"Snooty was such a unique animal, and he had so much personality that people couldn't help but be drawn to him. As you can imagine, I — and our staff, volunteers and board members — considered him a star."
In a Facebook post, manatee care specialist Tara Whitcomb promised, "We will continue in manatee conservation in Snooty's honor."
The aquarium closed Sunday, as workers cut off visitors at the entrance, giving adults the news to pass on to their children, Rodgers said.
Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells offered condolences on Twitter, writing, "Sad day around Manatee County as we lost Snooty, a true icon and our beloved mascot."
Rodgers said the underwater hatch is typically bolted shut, and the manatees had never gotten into the area before. The three manatees sharing Snooty's tank suffered no injuries, he said.
A statement from museum spokeswoman Jessica Schubick said the accident is still being investigated, and Snooty will undergo a necropsy at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory in St. Petersburg.
Snooty has lived in Bradenton since April 1949, after a donation from the former Miami Aquarium before his first birthday.
Watch the museum's press conference below:
Contact Langston Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @langstonitaylor.