In late September 2016, Hillary Janzen, a marine mammal volunteer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, responded to a report of a dead manatee off Hammer Point in the Upper Keys area of Tavernier.
The female manatee’s body was floating in a shallow flat just off shore. She’d been hit by a boat propeller.
Janzen and Tanya Manchester, another volunteer, got a ride out to the body on a resident’s boat and soon realized there was a bigger problem.
“We saw the babies that night, but we couldn’t do anything about it,” she said.
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The babies were actually twin manatees, about five months old at the time, said Mary Stella, with the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, which is called upon often to help with manatee captures and releases.
“The next day, we were up at the crack of dawn looking for the babies because I know I couldn’t sleep at all that night,” Janzen said.
The Fish and Wildlife manatee rescue team captured the juvenile mammals — the boy named Millennium and the girl Falcon by biologists who were Star Wars fans — and took them to the Miami Seaquarium on Virginia Key for initial rehabilitation. Brother and sister were then transferred to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, where they continued their development, before being sent back to the Seaquarium to prepare to be released back into the wild.
That day came Thursday in the bay side mangroves behind Calusa Campground in Key Largo. Millennium and Falcon, who were around 100 pounds when they were rescued, now weigh in about 600 pounds and are ready to go back to their natural habitat.
“What a job the Columbus Zoo and the Miami Seaquarium did,” said Jack Hanna, the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, who’s become an international celebrity over the decades due to his own television shows and his appearances on late night and morning TV programs. “You’ve got to be proud of them.”
Hanna just wrapped filming gorillas in Africa, but said he rushed back to the States to say goodbye to Millennium and Falcon.
“We have a beautiful manatee habitat up there,” he said. “I wasn’t going to miss this.”
In their final months at the Seaquarium, the twins got used to Florida saltwater again and were reintroduced to their natural diets of turtle grass, manatee grass, micro and macro algae and mangroves, said Dr. Maya Rodriguez, Seaquarium veterinarian.
“They actually like mangroves, so it’s good they’re learning to eat everything,” she said.
Before the manatees were released Thursday, satellite tracking devices were fitted to their flukes. The devices float on the surface like buoys.
Rodriguez said biologists will also frequent the area to keep an eye on Millennium and Falcon and see firsthand how they’re adjusting.
The tags will be monitored remotely by biologists with the Sea to Shore Alliance conservation group.
“This will allow us to track and monitor their behavior and hopefully their progress and how they’re doing in the coming months,” Stella said. “This is important. They were only a few months old at the time of their rescue. They were dependent on their mother.”
The tags will be removed in about four months.
As Millennium and Falcon were walked down the Calusa boat ramp into the mangrove creek, other manatees were there to greet them. The siblings initially joined the resident manatees, indicating their rehabilitation and acclimation training had paid off. But the bond between brother and sister appeared unbreakable even in the presence of new friends.
After a few minutes of swimming in the murky water, two buoys wended their way side-by-side along the mangroves, prompting cheers from the crowd of residents, scientists and volunteers who gathered to witness Millennium and Falcon return home.