I want to start off by saying I am so happy I decided to come to Wildtracks. Being here is more than I ever imagined it would be when I first heard about Wildtracks almost two years ago from a girl I went to school with. She came for two months in the beginning of 2015 and I was captivated by the photos she shared of her experience. My friends and family can probably still hear me saying ‘Look, she’s feeding a baby manatee! Isn’t that so cool?’ while I showed them these pictures. Little did I know, I would be feeding some of the same manatees a short time later.
The days at Wildtracks are long, and sometimes exhausting but there are many moments to remind you that the early mornings and itchy mosquito bites are all worth it. One of those days for me was when we integrated Hope, Mitch, and Lucky. Hope is a female manatee that arrived in August 2016. She was only a few days old when she was discovered in someone’s back yard, washed up by a storm surge caused by Hurricane Earl. When a young manatee first arrives at Wildtracks they are monitored around the clock in the Intensive Care Pool. Once the manatee is healthy enough, it is moved into the Recovery Pool and then a Large Growth Pool. When I arrived in October, Hope had already been through these stages of rehabilitation and was now residing in one half of the Lagoon Enclosure. The lagoon enclosure creates a more natural environment and is the final phase before soft release. In the adjacent enclosure were Mitch and Lucky, both males that arrived a few weeks apart from each other. Since Hope was rescued when she was a new-born calf, she had not seen another manatee until she was moved into the lagoon. She could see Mitch and Lucky through the fencing, and occasionally stole mangroves from their side of the enclosure, but didn’t have any direct contact. The two older female manatees in soft-release, Khaleesi and Twiggy, would occasionally come up to the outer fencing and say ‘Hi!’ to Hope as well (Hope was extra excited when she got to see Twiggy).
One morning the Manatee Team got the news that we would be opening the gate that separated the two sides of the lagoon enclosure so all three manatees would be able to swim freely around the enclosure. This gave the manatees twice the amount of swimming space they had previously and gave Hope the opportunity to live with other manatees for the first time. Later that afternoon the team gathered to watch Paul and Jaimy open the gate. Within a few minutes Hope found her way over to the boys’ side. We were all both excited and nervous and everyone took shifts keeping watch for the rest of the day. There was still a risk that something could go wrong; the manatees may not all get along or Hope could end up underneath one of the boys while they were playing and not able to surface to breath since the boys are bigger. There were a few spooks and splashes as they got use to the new conditions but by the end of the day we felt confident that the integration was successful. Everyone was excited to feed all three manatees together at the same time. It took time for the group to figure out how to line up comfortably for their milk but once they did it was amazing.
It has been a week now since the integration with all three continuing to get along and almost always coming up to feed in the same order. Mitch is usually the first to come up for milk when he sees our feet drop into the water. He has always preferred to eat to the far left next to the gate and takes his time to finish his bottle. Hope is typically only a few seconds behind to start her feed and prefers to be on the outside near the mangroves trees. Lucky is the patient one. Sometimes he waits until the other two have had some time to eat first then comes up and squeezes in the middle but, unlike Mitch, wastes no time drinking his milk. Seeing all three eat in unison still gives the team a smile.
Being here now is still surreal, even two months in. But I’ve realized Wildtracks is so much more than just feeding baby manatees. It’s helping the monkey team out with fruit chop when they are shorthanded. It’s educating the community about the wildlife that surrounds them. It’s going to town and dancing with strangers that have become friends. It’s waking up early to catch racoons that decided to return after they had already been released (and regretting staying out late dancing the night before). It’s realizing that all the day to day tasks that may seem monotonous at times (like scrubbing pool walls) are all working parts of a bigger picture. Wildtracks is about keeping the wild in wildlife and I am lucky to be a part of it.