The two manatees lay inert on a cushion of foam in the back of a truck. Only a few feet away, water lapped at the boat ramp at Black Point Marina. A throng of Miami Seaquarium employees in black shorts and blue t-shirts had assembled to carry the 800-pound animals from the truck to the waiting boat, but first they prepped the animals for their return to the wild this past Thursday.
They used an ultrasound wand to measure the thickness of their blubber, measured their size, and took blood samples. The manatees' hides were rough and black, and rose and fell slightly with each breath. Their eyes were closed and they lay, potato-like, flippers hugged close to their massive flanks, motionless except for the occasional wrinkling of their whiskered noses in order to snuffle. They smelled of the sea. A digital chip was inserted under one manatee's flipper. He flinched. His name was Sparky. He looked miserable.
Sparky was found as a baby in the waters near the FPL power plant in Port Everglades, a favorite winter vacation spot for the animals, who stay warm in the plant's heated discharge. He was orphaned and emaciated. The other manatee in the truck, River, was found in Miami's Little River, also a baby alone in the world.
Thanks to years of bottle feeding and nursing from resident Seaquarium manatees (the species is capable of spontaneous lactation), they had each gained some 750 pounds. They had spent the last few months socializing with other manatees in the male tank. "The males are very social together; very tactile," said Dr. Maya Rodriguez, the manatees' vet, who watched the proceedings with the air of a proud mother. She explained that as orphans, Sparky and River were "naï¿½ve" and would be monitored through a satellite-equipped buoy attached to their tail for their first year.
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Sometimes naï¿½ve manatees need to go back to the aquarium for a while, if they lose blubber thickness and can't seem to figure things out. Sometimes boaters call the Seaquarium to say they found a manatee tangled in something, not realizing that it's the manatees' tracking buoy. Sometimes they remove the buoy, and Sequarium employees follow the satellite signal to the boaters' house, knock on the door, and retrieve it.
The legion of employees grabbed on to Sparky's sling, counted to three, and heaved him onto the mechanical lift. He was transported to ground level, then lifted to the bed of the boat. He lay like a rolled up rug. Manatees can be heard squeaking to one another underwater, but above water they make no discernable noise.
The boat trolled out of the marina, past a sign that said "Manatee Zone No Entry." This was the sanctuary where he would be released. His handlers counted to three, then heaved him away. River would follow in the next boat. Sparky dove under and disappeared. His buoy surfaced periodically in the distance as the boat motored back to the marina.