News: The hunt for GTMO sea cow
Story by Sgt. Spencer Rhodes
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - Seven researchers with the United States Geological Survey returned to Naval Station Guantanamo this week as part of Project Sirenia, to continue tagging local manatees found in Guantanamo Bay. As with previous visits, GTMO volunteers were trained on assisting with the capture process to safely bring manatees to shore to be tagged for tracking and given a health assessment.
“We’re really trying to get a handle on what the manatees are doing here, how they use their resource, how many there may be and the health conditions of the manatees here,” said Susan Butler, a researcher for USGS at the University of Florida, “It is a tedious game of I Spy, and it can be a long process. So spotting them is definitely one of the hardest parts of the capture process.”
Since general knowledge of manatees is not wide spread for those who don’t live in a area where the species make their home, introducing Service members to the research USGS will be doing in Cuba started with two nights of informative lecture and instructions at Buckley Hall. This is where residents signed up received a better understanding of what the creatures were and there life in the bay, as well as what the activities would entail.
A crucial learning point for those attending was “Boot Camp”, a whole morning dedicated on Saturday to teaching the proper handling of nets and what people should look out for while participating. Volunteer numbers were highest during the weekends, allowing for a greater spotting coverage in different locations across GTMO in the hopes of seeing a manatee that had not been tagged. Numbers began dwindling once the work week started, leaving the USGS team with smaller groups for all the different tasks.
Army 2nd Lt. Kelsey Brewer, attached to the 189th Military Police Company, has only been a part of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo mission since the beginning of spring. Volunteer events like this have allowed her to jump in to her new permanent change of station. Brewer says the few chances she’s had to come close to manatees haven’t worked out in the past.
“It’s a good way to relax, get out on the water, and also see a manatee up close,” said Brewer.
Dr. Bob Bonde, who is in charge of the health and genetics for all manatee research in the USGS, says that every time they bring in a manatee they do an all encompassing checkup, much like you would have done when going to a family physician at home. They draw blood and do blood-work, urinalysis, fat measurements, and do their best to get a accurate overall picture of the animals current health.
“This place really is a safe haven for these manatees, and it’s a testament to GTMO how well they’ve done, but we’re still trying to find out more about the differences between the manatees here and in other areas. We know what they look like in Puerto Rico, we know what they look like in Florida, but what we want to know is what constitutes a healthy manatee here in GTMO,” said Bonde.
It’s not just the USGS that has an interest though. The U.S. Navy also wants to know how exactly the manatees use the bay and how strong is the population is, explained Butler.
The team who is working at GTMO is made up of an eclectic group of people, each with a specific skill set or even from an entirely different organization. While most are USGS researchers, others like Dr. Judd Kenworthy, bring a different expertise. Kenworthy, who is a retired scientist from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, is a subject matter expert in sea grass studies and a volunteer assisting the USGS manatee researchers with Project Sirenia.
Once the manatee capture portion is complete, the following week will focus on the habitat and resources, such as sea grass and other vegetation, to see how the manatee’s use their resources and where as well. For more information on manatee wildlife go to USGS.gov.