Skip to main content

Aided by Eckerd College alumni, Flapjack the manatee is released back into the wild—again

By Tom Zucco
Published July 9, 2024
Categories: Alumni, Community Engagement, Waterfront

“He’s here!” someone yelled. On cue, hundreds of cellphones appeared, and the crowd of people who packed the docks at the Eckerd College Waterfront Complex on Frenchman’s Creek inched forward to get a better look.

It was early afternoon on June 20 when the refrigerated rescue truck from SeaWorld Orlando backed to the top of the complex’s boat ramp. Rescue teams from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, along with SeaWorld animal care staff, assembled at the back of the truck as the door opened.

Their job was to transfer a 745-pound, 8-foot-long, juvenile, male manatee named Flapjack from the truck to the ramp to the water after taking measurements, marking scars and snapping photos so he can be identified. And because of the intense heat of the day, do all this in about 10 minutes.

Few people knew it at the time, but this would be Flapjack’s second reprieve.

Andy Garrett ’99, who works as a manatee rescue coordinator for the FWC and leads the FWC’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab on Eckerd’s campus, says Flapjack was rescued the first time in 2021 when he was found sick and malnourished in the Weeki Wachee River. He was taken to ZooTampa at Lowry Park, where he recovered and was released back into the river. Garrett led that release effort.

Flapjack the manatee calmly awaits his release into Frenchman’s Creek. Photos by Michel Fougères

Animal care staff haul Flapjack down the boat ramp.

The latest episode had begun in April, when Flapjack was found trapped in a retention pond in Clam Bayou Nature Park in nearby Gulfport. “Flapjack swam over a concrete barrier during an extreme high-tide event and was unable to swim out once the water receded,” Garrett explains.

“A rescue team from FWC, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, ZooTampa and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office captured Flapjack and transported him to SeaWorld Orlando for rehabilitation due to his thin body condition. Flapjack has been recovering for the past two months at SeaWorld, and he was recently medically cleared for release by the facility veterinarians.”

The marine mammal at the center of all this is a gentle, slow-moving giant that can weigh as much as 1,200 pounds and live as long as 65 years. Manatees are Florida’s official state marine mammal but are listed as a threatened species. They can fall victim to boat strikes, starvation from a lack of seagrass, and toxic red-tide algae outbreaks.

Their closest living relative is the elephant, and in what might be an encouraging sign, the state estimates the current Florida manatee population at about 8,500, up by nearly a thousand from last year.

Andy Garrett ’99 shares the story of Flapjack with the throng of manatee supporters.

At Eckerd College, the last leg of Flapjack’s journey drew cheers and applause. Waterfront Recreation Supervisor Leila Koenig ’23 and Administrative Coordinator Lia Perez ’23 helped carry him into the water. But that wasn’t the last anyone would see of Flapjack. Not long after his release, Eckerd staff and several summer camp children observed him interacting and swimming with a fellow manatee near the ramp.

“He came back with other manatees later in the day and was sighted more than once,” says Ryan Dilkey ’98, director of the Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team and associate director of the Waterfront Program. Dilkey and Garrett have a unique partnership when it comes to manatee rescues.

“Andy and I were students [together] at Eckerd for three of our four years, and we knew each other,” Dilkey explains. “Many times when Andy finds himself with a struggling manatee, he calls us. We don’t do manatee rescues, but we do send one of our boats with several students on it to provide extra hands to help transfer the manatee to one of his boats. We provide extra muscle.”

“When manatees come to you healthy, you’re not as worried about them as in a rescue, where you’re just trying to keep them alive,” Garrett adds. “Releases are a little more laid back. But you’re still very conscious of the animals and their well-being. And it’s always a good feeling to be there with our partners at SeaWorld and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

“So this is the start of a new story for that guy,” Garrett says. “Hopefully, it’s the last time we see him, but that’s the nature of manatees. They face a lot of challenges out there.”