Updated on November 29, 2023

The Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom crew traveled to Florida to learn more about manatees and sea turtles. These species have long called the Sunshine State home and will continue to thanks to efforts from rescue organizations and attentive Floridians. We were joined on this trip by our friend David Mizejewski with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

Manatees | Florida’s Marine Mammals

The slow-moving Florida manatee can be found in both coastal and inland waterways throughout the state. Various threats such as habitat loss, boating collisions and diminishing food sources have plagued manatees throughout Florida.

manatee wild kingdom

Florida Manatees at Risk

Since late 2020, Florida has declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for manatees due a dramatic decline in available food. The Wild Kingdom crew traveled to the Indian River Lagoon where manatees suffer from chronic malnutrition because of a short supply of seagrass.

florida manatee rescue

Matthew the manatee right after he was rescued.

One manatee affected by the UME was Matthew, who was first rescued as orphan in 2016. He was initially released but rescued again in 2021 after he struggled to find food. Matthew was feeding on macro algae until the plant totally died off in 2020. After rehabilitation, Matthew was released in Blue Spring State Park in early 2022. Wild Kingdom Co-host Peter Gros joined Monica Ross, Clearwater Marine Aquarium senior research scientist, on the St. John’s River near Blue Spring State Park in Orange City to search for Matthew.

Manatees released into the St. John’s River have an abundant supply of various plant life to eat. These include surface plants, such as duck weed and alligator grass, which manatees learn to eat while in rehabilitation.

florida manatee about to be released

Matthew is now healthy and ready to be released back into the wild.

Researchers use a sonic transmitter to listen for the presence of manatees in the St. John’s River. The river is only two to three feet deep in some places with a soft, muddy bottom so even if a manatee is nearby, it may not be visible. This is one of the reasons they are prone to boat strikes, as even in shallow waters they can’t be seen.

Manatee Rehabilitation in Jacksonville, Florida

The Wild Kingdom crew also met Inigo, a manatee rescued by Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. He was rescued in December 2021 and required around-the-clock care for his first three weeks at the zoo. To help keep him buoyant in the zoo’s pool, the care team strapped life jackets around his body and tied pool noodles into a circle with rope. Inigo was too weak to hold his own tail up.

florida manatee getting a vet checkup

Inigo’s vet workup to ensure he’s healthy enough to be released back into the wild.

To prepare for his release, Inigo was stabilized by the zoo’s team and Peter. Then Nadia Gordon, marine mammal biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, placed a passive integrated transponder (PIT tag) under Inigo’s skin. The tag is about the size of a grain of rice and similar to a microchip used for pets. This helps researchers identify him when he’s back in the wild and monitor his success to ensure he’s doing well on his own.

Florida Manatee Fun Facts from NWF’s David Mizejewski

  • Florida manatees seen in this article are a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. The other subspecies are Antillean and Caribbean.
  • Manatees are mammals that breathe air and produce milk to feed their young.
  • Manatees are herbivores, feeding exclusively on seagrass and other aquatic vegetation.
  • Though they have large, round bodies, manatees do not have a layer of blubber, such as marine mammals that live in cold regions. In fact, manatees are very sensitive to the cold and can become ill or even die when water temperatures fall below 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • During the summer, some manatees migrate out of Florida waters up the East Coast. Manatees have been documented are far north as Cape Code, Massachusetts!
  • Manatees eat 10-15% of their body weight per day.
  • Their closest relatives are elephants and hyraxes.
  • Manatees are known to be slow moving, averaging around 3-5 mph, but they can swim in bursts up to 20 mph.
  • When a manatee’s molars wear down, they move forward in its mouth and fall out. New teeth then fill in at the back of the mouth.
  • They stay near the surface of the water as they need air to breathe.

manatee at mote aquarium in florida

Florida Home to Sea Turtle Nesting

Although sea turtles can be found in temperate and tropical oceans worldwide, Florida is a special place to the species. It’s home to many sea turtle nesting and feeding sites. The Wild Kingdom crew traveled to Florida’s west coast to see sea turtles in the wild and in rehabilitation at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium.

Treating Sea Turtles

florida sea turtle at mote marine lab and aquarium

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, treats an average of 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings per year, of which 85% are released back into the wild. Sarasota county is home to the highest dentistry of loggerhead turtle nesting on Florida’s gulf coast.

While in the aquarium’s hospital, the sea turtle hatchlings are weighed and measured each week to monitor their growth. Currently, all the Mote hatchlings are loggerheads, the most common sea turtle in Florida.

sea turtle at mote marine lab and aquarium

One of the most famous turtles at the aquarium is Montego, a 45-year-old loggerhead. She was hatched in captivity and participated in sound and behavior studies at the University of North Carolina before coming to the aquarium.

Beach Habitat for Sea Turtles

Our crew also visited Longboat Key Beach with Melissa Macksey, senior biologist and conservation manager at Mote. Macksey showed us how to determine a loggerhead turtle recently visited the beach by looking at the size and shape of tracks in the sand.

sea turtle hatchling and nest markers

Along the beach stakes and pink flags mark nest sites so the public is aware of where they are. Special markings indicate GPS measurements and distance to the water. The aquarium has monitored nests for 41 years and observes 35 miles of beaches during nesting season from May to October. Mote has documented 3,500 nests from Longboat Key Beach to Venice, Florida.

Meet Sid the Sea Turtle

The Wild Kingdom crew witnessed sea turtle rehabilitation and release in action by meeting Sid. Sid was rescued in New England and flown to Florida by Turtles Fly Too, a group of pilots who volunteer with marine life rescue. We met Sid while he was rehabilitating at the Florida Aquarium Turtle Rehabilitation Center in Apollo Beach. The center has a deep dive foraging pool which allows the sea turtles to practice foraging for food before their release into the wild.

florida loggerhead sea turtle release

Sid the sea turtle heads back to sea after being rehabilitated.

Sid was cold stunned when rescued, which means a turtle he was weak from exposure to cold temperatures. Sid also had a bone infection in his flippers. The rehab team used laser therapy and antibiotics to help heal the infection.

peter gros wild kingdom filming on little talbot island

Peter Gros filming on Little Talbot Island.

Sid spent around seven months in the Florida Aquarium’s care. The Wild Kingdom crew was able to see his release back into the wild at Little Talbot Island State Park near Jacksonville. Sid was the 13th release of the year for the aquarium, which has released more than 200 rehabilitated sea turtles back into the wild.

Sea Turtle Fun Facts from NWF’s David Mizejewski

  • The species primarily featured in the episode were the loggerhead and green sea turtle. Both nest on Florida’s beaches and are large species. Green sea turtles are the second largest sea turtle species after the leatherback, reaching lengths of four feet and weighing over 400 pounds. Loggerheads can grow to 3.5 feet and weigh in at 350 pounds.
  • Green sea turtles feed exclusively on marine vegetation as adults, the only sea turtle species to do so. As juveniles, they also feed on marine invertebrates.
  • Loggerhead sea turtles feed on crustaceans and mollusks. They have large heads with powerful beaks to crush through their hard-shelled prey, which earned them their name.
  • Loggerheads can reach up to 4 feet in shell length and weigh 330 pounds.
  • They can live for more than 50 years.
  • They can carry mini reefs on their backs. Sponges, algae and small crustaceans all attach to the loggerhead turtle’s shell.
  • Loggerheads are very important to their ecosystem as they contribute to nutrient cycling on the ocean floor.


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