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A Successful Rescue for Siesta and Her Calf Key

An above-water photo of a manatee calf surfacing for a breath while the calf's mother is just visible below the surface behind the calf.
Manatee Siesta and her calf Key swim together after release. Key was born at SeaWorld Orlando, so it is a whole new world for him!

By Cora Berchem, Director of Multimedia & Manatee Research Associate, Save the Manatee Club

When long-term Sarasota resident Walter Hepp, M.D., stepped out on his back porch in Harbor Acres near Selby Gardens, Florida, the morning of Friday, May 10, 2020, he spotted what looked like a large floating log in the distance. However, after a few minutes, Hepp realized this was not a log after all—it was a manatee, and something was wrong with it. “I watched it for over an hour, and it kept floating and was not able to submerge,” recalls Hepp. “I knew something was not right and had my daughter immediately call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) hotline to report the manatee.”

Staff from Mote Marine Aquarium reported to the scene, but the manatee disappeared in and around the backyard docks and boat lifts and could not be located again that day.

Mother manatee Siesta shortly before release. She suffered a watercraft collision in May and delivered a calf two days after she was rescued.

The next morning, however, the large manatee was back, and a team from FWC, Mote, and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department was able to rescue the 1,700-pound female. The manatee was brought to SeaWorld Orlando’s critical care facility for rehabilitation, and, after an initial health assessment, the team realized she was pregnant! The female manatee was suffering from air trapped in her lung cavity, a condition called “pneumothorax,” due to a watercraft injury. Before performing a chest tap to remove the trapped air from her lung, the experienced staff placed her in a specially designed neoprene wetsuit to keep her level in the water and to make it easier for her to breathe. Only two days after rescue, the recovering manatee gave birth to a healthy male calf! SeaWorld staff nicknamed the mother “Siesta” and her calf “Key” because of their rescue location.

Little calf Key rests in a tub before release.

“Siesta” actually turned out to be a known animal from the Southwest Florida area who had been identified by researchers since 2014.

Luckily, Siesta made a speedy recovery, and Key was a healthy calf, nursing, staying close to Siesta, and exploring the pool. In the wild, manatee calves depend on their mothers for the first one to two years of their lives in order to learn necessary survival skills such as finding warm water, fresh water, and food sources. So the best place for a young manatee calf like Key to be is out in the wild with his mother. By June 18th, just about a month after their rescue, the pair was ready to go back home.

“It is extremely rewarding to see that she made such a quick turn around and that we’re already able to release her back into the wild,” says SeaWorld Animal Rescue Supervisor Brant Gabriel.

Save the Manatee Club staff members (l-r) Ally Greco and Cora Berchem document the release of Siesta and Key.

The day of the release, Siesta, now weighing in at about 1,500 pounds, and Key, at about 124 pounds, were greeted by teams from Mote, FWC, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department, Save the Manatee Club, and local residents who waved them goodbye and good luck as they slowly swam away from the boat ramp. Another wild subadult manatee even nudged the pair as they entered the water.

“I was thrilled to get a phone call and hear that the pair was going to be released close to where they were found, so quickly,” says Walter Hepp, who attended the release with his wife. “We didn’t just save one manatee; we saved two. It’s amazing to see so many agencies coming together to assist with a rescue and a release.”

Save the Manatee Club wants to thank everyone involved in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of these two manatees. If you see a sick or injured manatee, please report it to FWC at 1-888-404-3922. Please keep an extra eye out for manatees while boating, obey the posted speed zones, and wear polarized sunglasses to better see manatees below the surface. Learn more at savethemanatee.org/rescue and get more manatee protection tips for boaters.

Watch our video and learn more about Siesta and Key’s rescue and release. See the incredible footage from SeaWorld Orlando of Siesta giving birth!

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