Three Florida manatees whose living conditions at Miami Seaquarium sparked online outrage were escorted across the state by a caravan of wildlife officials Tuesday to their new homes at ZooTampa and SeaWorld Orlando.
Romeo and Juliet, manatees originally from the Miami River who had lived at Seaquarium since the late 1950s, were transported to ZooTampa, and Clarity, an injured manatee who had lived at Seaquarium since 2009, was relocated to Orlando. Manatees are the state-designated marine mammal.
Romeo, who lived alone in his tank, and Juliet, who shared her tank with Clarity, had been residents at the Virginia Key marine park for so long, they predate laws created in the 1970s to help protect them.
But in recent years, living conditions at Seaquarium have come under fire. A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection from July pointed to the isolation of Romeo and a lack of shade over his tank, among other observations of mishandling animals.
Miami Seaquarium has been under scrutiny for years, and the USDA, which governs animal parks, has issued a series of critical inspection reports since 2020. The Mexico-based Dolphin Company took over operations and signed a lease with Miami-Dade County in 2021, promising improvements.
The killer whale Lolita, also known as Tokitae or Toki, who was the marine park’s star attraction for 50 years, died in August, just months after Miami Seaquarium and the Friends of Lolita organization announced plans to relocate her to a sea pen in her home waters near Seattle.
Now, against the backdrop of animal advocacy groups leading a campaign for their freedom, Romeo and Juliet were delivered to their new home Tuesday at ZooTampa. Staff began the cross-state journey with Romeo’s departure at 8:30 a.m. Juliet’s transport left 50 minutes later.
“Today is a very big day,” said Melissa Nau, the senior director of animal health at ZooTampa. “Manatees are in the hearts of so many Floridians. The fact that we get to help sick and injured animals have a chance to have a longer life is definitely a huge honor.”
Romeo arrived first to ZooTampa at about 1:30 p.m., where he was met by an ecstatic (but courteously hushed) zoo staff. The roughly 4½-hour drive from Miami included an escort, flashing lights and all, from both state and federal wildlife agencies.
“There was precious cargo coming through,” said Cynthia Stringfield, a ZooTampa veterinarian who was on board with Romeo for the drive. “Romeo did extremely well during the transport. He’s a very old manatee, and that was a lot for him. But he got to the zoo with no problems at all.”
And then came the beloved Juliet at about 3:55 p.m.
Dr. Magdalena Rodriguez, a Miami veterinarian who oversaw animal care at Seaquarium for 23 years, was relieved that the last three manatees remaining at Seaquarium were moved out.
“That’s the end of the manatee program at Seaquarium,” she said. “As risky as it is to move them, it was necessary so that what happened to Toki does not happen to them.
“Clarity, who has a displaced back and was not releaseable into the wild, was looking bad, and the pool she and Juliet shared had repair issues with its pump and chipping concrete.
“Romeo, who is very sociable and displayed lots of altruistic behavior with younger manatees, was living by himself. After they finally put up a shade screen for him, it blew down during the one-day storm last month and he got scared and stopped eating,” she said.
Moving 3,000 pounds of a purely plump mammal is no easy task: “As you can imagine, a manatee is quite a hefty load,” laughed Nau, of ZooTampa. “It can be quite the challenge to move such a heavy animal.”
ZooTampa has specialized stretchers to lift the manatees from their transport truck. And when it comes time to actually place them in a pool, a custom crane does the trick. Over the next 24 hours, each animal will receive a full health assessment, Nau said. That usually includes taking blood samples and potentially pain medication.
“A very intricate plan was in place for this,” Nau said. “Everyone has been working together to get these animals out of their pool, into a transport vehicle and ultimately to their new home.”
Their relocation to ZooTampa Tuesday was part of a larger operation that state and federal wildlife officials say had been in the works for months between the government and private care facilities across Florida.
Romeo and Juliet are considered “advanced age” by the federal U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, meaning their transportation to new care facilities was high risk. All three manatees likely have other health issues.
Manatee video sparks outcry
Public pressure for Miami Seaquarium to release the manatees skyrocketed in recent weeks after an advocacy group, UrgentSeas, posted a drone video from above one of the facility’s pools. The video, purportedly taken Nov. 13, appears to show a lonely Romeo swimming in a small pool. The hashtag #FreeRomeo flashes at the end of the video, which had amassed nearly 23 million views on TikTok as of Tuesday afternoon.
Phil Demers, co-founder of UrgentSeas, told the Tampa Bay Times “it’s a beautiful thing” to hear the manatees are being relocated to other care facilities in Florida. He believes his organization’s widespread video campaign helped make their release happen, he said.
“Public pressure played a monster role in the relocation of these manatees,” Demers said in an interview. “It’s every activist’s dream to enact and inspire change. Today we all get to celebrate an amazing result.”
Demers said Miami Seaquarium is now suing him for flying a drone over the facility.
In a prepared statement, Miami Seaquarium said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has jurisdiction over Clarity, and the agency began the process to move her to SeaWorld months ago. That would mean Juliet would be left alone in the tank she shared with Clarity, which isn’t allowed under wildlife service regulations.
“Current legislation and regulations make it impossible to give a solution to keeping male and female manatees together, as reproduction is not permitted, and keeping them solitary is not recommended. And so, since no other options were available for both Romeo and Juliet, we believed it is best for them to be transferred to a facility that could host them in a social group,” the aquarium wrote.
Now that these manatees are relocated to new homes, there’s an opportunity for them to become figureheads of resilience — and companions for other rescued manatees in rehab, according to Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club.
Most manatees in the wild don’t grow to be as old as Romeo and Juliet, who have been swimming on this planet for more than six decades, Rose said. With the right care, this duo could live for many more years. But the first step was getting them out of Miami Seaquarium, he said.
“The conditions there were certainly suboptimal, and problems persisted there longer than they should have. They needed to be re-homed, ” Rose said.
“I have confidence in ZooTampa to provide them the care and treatment that would be optimal for them,” Rose said.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Linda Robertson contributed to this report.