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SeaWorld – North End: Manatee Rescue

Rating: * * * * *
Type: Aquatic habitat
Time: 20 to 30 minutes
Kelly says: For everyone in the family

You don’t expect a natural history exhibit to pack an emotional wallop, but this one sure does — and does it very deftly. It is unlikely that anyone in your family will emerge from this experience unaffected.

The manatee is a large, slow-moving marine mammal that favors the shallow brackish waterways along the Florida coast, the very same areas that have become a recreational paradise for boaters and fishermen. As man’s presence in their habitat has increased, the manatees’ numbers have dwindled. The good news is that, thanks in part to the rescue efforts of SeaWorld, the manatee population is on the rebound.

But manatees are not out of danger yet, a fact brought home when we realize that all of the small manatees in the exhibit are orphans and that some of the larger animals have been grievously wounded by their encounters with civilization. One has lost most of its tail, another a front flipper. One of the themes of this exhibit is SeaWorld’s ongoing rescue efforts of manatees and other marine mammals. On video, we see a seriously wounded adult nursed back to health and released back into the wild. The news that at least one released manatee has reproduced in the wild seems like a major victory.

After viewing the manatees from above — in a pool that re-creates a coastal wetland, with egrets and ibises looking on — we walk down a spiraling walkway into an underground circular theater for a short and highly effective film containing a plea for conservation and protection of the manatee. From there, we pass into the underwater viewing area where the majesty and fragility of this odd beast become even more apparent. Their slow, graceful movements and their rather goofy faces make the manatee instantly appealing. The aquatic setting is lovely too.

Interactive touch-screen video monitors provide a self-guided wealth of additional information about manatees and the problems they face from habitat destruction and pollution. Staffers from SeaWorld’s education department stroll the viewing area on a somewhat irregular schedule. If any are there when you visit, they will be more than happy to answer your questions.

I found this a profoundly moving experience and one to which I return eagerly on each visit. Signs along the exit ramp challenge you to make a personal commitment to help the manatee. What will you do?

Photo Op: As you leave the exhibit, look for the sculpture of the manatee cow and her calf floating artfully above the pavement. It makes an excellent backdrop for a family photograph.

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