Manatee mama, calf released near Blue Spring after successful rehab at SeaWorld Orlando

Mary Helen Moore
The Daytona Beach News-Journal

ORANGE CITY — During a heartbreaking year for the manatee, a small crowd near Blue Springs State Park got a glimpse of hope Wednesday when a pair of manatees was released after months of successful rehabilitation.

A Sea World employee comfort a adult manatee named Mandy as teams from FWC, Sea World, Save the Manatee Club and the Volusia County mammal stranding team prepair to release Mandy and her calf Manilow back into the wild, Wednesday July 14, 2021 at the French Landing boat ramp near Blue Springs State Park.

The mother and baby disappeared into the St. John's River with a few great ripples after spending four months at SeaWorld Orlando gaining weight under the careful watch of staff.

Last week, Florida broke the record for manatee deaths in one year, marking more than 850 deaths so far in 2021 with nearly half the year to go.

The spike in deaths is suspected to be largely caused by starvation. Declining water quality has led seagrasses to vanish, especially in the Indian River Lagoon, which extends from southern Volusia County to northern Palm Beach County.

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SeaWorld staff nicknamed the mom Mandy and her 1-year-old calf Manilow, after the Barry Manilow song "Mandy".

Researchers noticed signs of emaciation in Mandy at the end of winter, so rescuers came to Blue Spring State Park and saved the pair in March. She weighed only 900 pounds or so.

"She was underweight," said Ally Greco, of Save the Manatee Club. "However, this was not related to the starvation that was seen this winter in the Indian River Lagoon, as there was plenty of vegetation available near Blue Spring."

Teams from FWC, Sea World, Save the Manatee Club and the Volusia County mammal stranding team carry  adult manatee Mandy and her calf Manilow into the St. Johns River, Wednesday July 14, 2021 releasing the pair back into the wild at the French Landing boat ramp near Blue Springs State Park.

Manilow, Mandy's nursing calf, was healthy. 

Missy Gibbs, a Stetson professor and president of the Friends of Blue Spring State Park, said it's not uncommon for first-time moms like Mandy to over-nurse their babies.

"She was so skinny. The baby was a butterball. He was fine," Gibbs said.

Mandy gained about 300 pounds during her stay at SeaWorld, weighing in above 1,200 pounds before her release.

It took about 15 people to lower her from the truck to the ground, where they photographed and measured her one last time. About 10 managed with the calf.

In addition to staff on-hand from SeaWorld, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Volusia County, Save The Manatee Club and Friends of Blue Spring State Park, a couple dozen spectators were on-hand to witness the release.

Mandy was emaciated and starving when she was rescued at Blue Spring State Park in March, weighing just 900 pounds. She packed on 300 pounds at SeaWorld Orlando before she was released into the St. Johns River with her calf Manilow on July 14, 2021.

Most stood along the boat ramp as rain came and went, though a handful of boaters paused near the shore as well.

Erin Hohman, of Debary, brought her teenage son and two of her daughters, 5 and 11. They said they hope to see the pair sometime when they're out kayaking.

"It was very neat," Hohman said. "They can stay out of the water a lot longer than I thought."

She said her 5-year-old had a lot of questions, like "Where do the scars come from?"

The scars are typically evidence of boat strikes, and they're meticulously documented so FWC can identify the creatures should they appear again.

Blue Spring State Park is a key refuge for manatees during the winter because of its warm water.

"They just spend all their time resting in there. Midday, they'll head out into the river and eat," Gibbs said.

It's a regular site for rescues and releases, but Mandy and Manilow were instead taken just west, to French Landing Boat Ramp on the St. Johns River.

Gibbs said the rescue and release area inside the park is considered too old and unsafe to use. Its narrow steps pose a risk to staff as well as manatees, which can weigh half-a-ton or more.

Save the Manatee Club and the Friends of Blue Spring State Park are raising money to rebuild the area with a ramp, a large staging area for releases, and some interpretive panels to educate park visitors. They're taking donations at friendsofbluespringstatepark.org/donate.

Call the FWC hotline at 1-888-404-3922 (FWCC) and report sick or injured manatees including: 

  • Emaciated manatees, with visible ribs, head sunken in the shape of a peanut
  • Orphaned calf
  • Pink/red wounds (fresh cuts)
  • Manatees tilting to one side, unable to submerge
  • Manatees coming up for a breath as often as every 30 seconds or less
  • Entangled manatees (in crab traps, monofilament line) — do not remove entanglement yourself
  • Dead manatees