A Florida manatee known as “Washburn” has made history by being the first manatee that researchers have actively tracked as it crossed the Gulf Stream and arrived in the Bahamas. Scientists from the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) confirmed the pregnant manatee is now swimming in the waters of the northern Abacos near Grand Cay.
Crossing the 4-mph Gulf Stream and finding the banks of the Bahamas is no easy feat for slow-swimming manatees typically found in shallow water so researchers monitoring her track during her near 200-mile trek were somewhat concerned. “Thanks to the quick response from BMMRO’s scientists, we received photos and video of Washburn’s condition upon arrival in Abaco and could confirm that she had made it safely,” said Dr. James Powell, executive director of Florida’s Sea to Shore Alliance, the group that tagged and released Washburn on early November in Florida.
“Washburn” has joined a hand-full of other Florida manatees that have immigrated to the Bahamas. BMMRO has worked with manatee researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, to document at least four manatees in the Bahamas that were previously from Florida (identified as known individuals by the unique scar patterns on their body). BMMRO’s executive director, Dr. Diane Claridge explains that, “Due to successful management efforts in Florida, the manatee population is slowly increasing which is causing a natural expansion of their range, and is likely why manatees are increasingly seen in the Bahamas”.
If this trend continues, The Bahamas could become home to more manatees which is why one of BMMRO’s primary outreach programmes is focused on increasing awareness about manatees to ensure their wellbeing. BMMRO’s work has reached out to thousands of Bahamians through social media, and, as a result, over 400 people are now helping BMMRO scientists track manatees as they move throughout the islands. Claridge says, “Our goal is for The Bahamas to provide a safe environment for Washburn and other Florida manatees that make The Bahamas their new home.”
For Washburn, this was not her first unusual journey. She made headlines in the US this fall when she was rescued from the cooling waters of Cape Cod, Massachusetts on September 22, 2016, by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and began her rehabilitation at Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium before being flown to SeaWorld Orlando by the Cape Cod Coast Guard Air Station. Her rescue and rehabilitation were coordinated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership, a cooperative group of more than two dozen private and governmental agencies that pool resources to rehabilitate injured Florida manatees and then release them back into their natural habitat.
After treatment for cold stress, Washburn was released on November 1 near New Smyrna Beach, Florida, at which time Sea to Shore Alliance scientists placed a satellite tag on her as part of a manatee movement study. Washburn spent eleven days in the area, feeding and resting normally with other manatees, before travelling south down the coast, then east offshore and into the Gulf Stream. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Sea to Shore Alliance analysed data from Washburn’s tag as she crossed the Gulf Stream. Washburn arrived on Little Bahama Bank just off Walker’s Cay on Thanksgiving Day and was photographed by BMMRO scientists northeast of Grand Cay on November 26.
The Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) is a non-profit group based in Sandy Point, Abaco whose mission is to promote the conservation of marine mammals through scientific research and educational outreach. To learn more about BMMRO’s work with manatees, see the following links: www.bahamaswhales.org, www.facebook.com/bmmro, and www.facebook.com/groups/bahmanateeclub .