Last time Junebug the manatee saw open waters, she was a couple of months old, recently orphaned, and her species was endangered.
But on Thursday, after nearly three years in rehabilitation and a reclassification of the species, the West Indian sea cow boarded a truck in Miami bound for Tampa to join a group of about 600 others in warmer waters.
Junebug’s progress will be closely monitored, since neonatal orphan manatee deaths accounted for 116 of the 538 recorded in Florida waters last year, said Dr. Maya Rodriguez, a veterinarian at Miami Seaquarium. The total death toll was the third-highest recorded in state history, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
This despite last year’s decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service downgrading manatees’ protected status from endangered to “threatened.” Manatees had been considered endangered since 1967, when the first endangered-species list was published.
“Rescued neonatal orphan manatees are the most challenging difficult manatees to be released back to the wild because they are so naive to the wild environment,” Rodriguez said in a statement.
And you can cheer her on at home, as she was fitted with a satellite-tracking belt and her movements will be broadcast online at www.wildtracks.org as part of the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership. Junebug will be tracked for about a year, until next winter.
Junebug, who was bottle fed at the Miami Seaquarium for over a year and later transferred to an aquarium in Ohio, completed her last phase of rehabilitation in Miami. During the process, Junebug gained 850 pounds. She weighed about 70 pounds when rescuers originally found her.
The Miami Seaquarium currently houses nine rescue manatees. They released at least 10 last year. Junebug was the aquarium’s second release of the week, said animal care supervisor Jessica Schiffhauer, and another one is scheduled for next week.
Although Junebug was rescued off the coast of Naples, she will be released in a “warm water site” near Teco Power Plant in Tampa. The waters there are roughly 20 degrees warmer than surrounding waters as of Thursday, Schiffhauer said.
The idea, Schiffhauer said, was to release Junebug — who hasn’t endured a winter in the wild — on one of the year’s colder days so she would remember to return to the warm water site in the future.
“Our goal is to see how they make it through the next winter,” she said.
So how does one get 920 pounds of manatee into the back of a truck?
A crane helps.
Inside a shallow enclosure, a team of employees helped wrap Junebug in a blue tarp and pushed her into a large crate. A crane operator then hoisted her a couple of dozen feet into the air and slowly lowered her into the rear of the six-wheeled vehicle.
Before Junebug left, she gave one trainer a parting gift. Unhappy inside the crate, Junebug thrashed, sending a support beam flying toward the trainer.
He escaped mostly unscathed, but Junebug got her message across.
“She let us know she was ready to go,” Schiffhauer said.