NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - The United States has long been known as a safe harbor for tired, poor, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” And here at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. Naval Station and Joint Task Force Guantanamo have adopted the same principle of Ellis Island, N.Y., and applied it to the underwater world we live above – a safe harbor for marine life looking for sanctuary and a place to thrive.
Because Department of Defense installations pride themselves on being environmental stewards, and because NAVSTA and JTF-GTMO are constantly increasing efforts to be more environmentally friendly with a smaller carbon footprint, United States Geological Survey scientist Bob Bonde said the coves and inlets around Guantanamo Bay are thriving with marine wildlife.
Including the West Indian manatee – also called the Antillean manatee – which brings Bonde and a team of USGS scientists to GTMO twice a year to study. The USGS researchers collect data for the Sirenia Project, a project conducting long-term, detailed studies on the life history and ecological requirements of the West Indian manatee, essential to the recovery of the species.
“Guantanamo Bay is a classic example of a wildlife sanctuary in the sense of ‘if you build it, we will come,’” Bonde said, during a recent visit to study the local manatee population Nov. 9-14.
“If manatees feel safe here, then the population will likely grow and can supplement the endangered population on the rest of the island. That will ensure that we will have manatees around for a long time,” he said.
Because of the strict environmental guidelines that the NAVSTA follows for ecological impact and safety measures in place for both boaters and wildlife, Bonde said the waters surrounding the base are conducive and welcoming to marine wildlife including the manatees.
In the spring, the USGS tagged three manatees. Using the radio transmitters attached to their tails, the USGS team was able to track patterns in their movements, which allows scientists to better understand their behaviors including foraging patterns and daily movements.
“When we radio tag these animals, they literally are teaching us,” Bonde said.
“I’m an old-aged guy, so there will be a time when a new generation comes out here,” he said. “We grew up not seeing dinosaurs and that was a shame. That’s why we have to protect the manatees, we have a responsibility to protect these animals.”
It took two, one-hour blocks of instruction on the habitats and biology of manatees and a half-day’s training with nets and proper capture techniques before more than 70 volunteers were turned loose to spot, capture and assess the GTMO manatees. Even during the real-time mission of capture attempts, the volunteers were still learning and training.
Most of the days were filled with sitting, scanning the water for noses to surface, indicating that a manatee was in the area. With hours in the boats or on the beaches, the volunteers learned more about the manatees and marine life from the USGS team.
“I learned a lot,” said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Leo Paulo, a hospital corpsman and noncommissioned officer in charge at the detention hospital. “I learned about their vegetation habits, their physiology and their biology. When we were out in the field, I learned a lot about their reactions toward us. That’s something you can’t really learn in a classroom.”
Paulo worked on the assessment team Nov. 11 when the first manatee was captured for assessment. He collected fecal matter for testing, and also worked on the biopsy of the manatee’s tail.
“I have a biology background and field ecology knowledge,” he said. “This is the things I learned in school, and now I’m applying it in real life, and this will actually effect someone’s research. That’s awesome.”
More than 24 of Paulo’s fellow Joint Medical Group Troopers volunteered for the manatee-tagging mission. Most served at least 24-hours volunteer time during the five-day operation.
“For us, biology is the study of life. And we, as medical people, always try to look for better ways to treat,” he said. “Working with animals gives us a lot to learn from.”
The JMG troopers collected samples, labeled forms and assisted with the medical examination conducted by Bonde and Maggie Hunter, research geneticist with the USGS.
“Any lab experience is going to help us,” said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Monticue, a lab technician at the detention hospital.
“More exposure and seeing it different ways is always helpful,” he said.
Monticue also participated in a dolphin study in San Diego prior to this one at GTMO.
“It makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something,” he said. “Not just something for this command, but something with a world-wide impact.”
Because the JMG provided so many volunteers to assist with the mission, Bonde said the effort was a real benefit to the USGS research,which he called pioneering.
“We have a good system for us to acquire and collect the data that we need to know to identify what makes a manatee tick,” he said.
“Within 45 minutes, we are able to get the products we need, like the blood, serum, plasma and measure the urine and fecal samples and genetic samples,” he said. “We know in Florida what the norm is, but we are not really certain about Cuba. "
“It’s nice to have people with experience and who understand what is going on with the medical side of things,” he said, adding that all the volunteers helped pave the way for manatee research.
According to Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jon Zocchia, Maritime Security, 301st Port Security Detachment, once the manatees were brought on-board the capture boat for assessment, you couldn’t tell who belonged to the JMG or USGS.
“I didn’t even know who was who when they started the medical process and taking samples,” he said. “I thought the JMG was just here to observe, but they got in there and I didn’t realize they were integrated that much.”
Zocchia, a New York Police officer with an education in the science field, said he was glad he had the opportunity to work with the capture team to bring the manatees in for assessment. The data collection and participation in the research efforts is something he hasn’t got to do in a long time.
“I went to school in biology, and this was great,” he said. “Waiting was the most challenging, but I did research in college, so I loved getting back to it.”
With the capture and assessment of the Guantanamo manatees, to the field work that studies their habitats, the work conducted here at GTMO provides the scientists with knowledge that fills in the gaps in the overall knowledge of the Antillean manatee found throughout the Caribbean. Originally, the Sirenia Project began as a study of Florida manatees, but has since expanded to provide a broadened understanding of the context of manatee survival. This has raised new scientific questions about the manatee populations in the Caribbean islands, where they are still hunted by local communities.
“Because of the security and limited access of a military installation, the base acts as a ‘de facto’ marine sanctuary for plants and animals,” said Jim Reid, USGS biologist and member of the Sirenia Project.
“Over the course of five active capture days, we caught seven manatees, and radio tagged four of them,” he said. “It was great to have the multi-agency and service coordination to pull this off.”
The research will prove valuable to world-wide preservation efforts of the manatees Reid said. Another lasting effect was the team building of the JMG.
“The manatee tagging was unique,” said Command Master Chief Laura Hedien, senior enlisted leader, JMG.
“The volunteers were involved from the start to the finish of the process and the scientists were sure to involve us in the whole event and make us feel as part of the evolution,” she said.
“It was a great opportunity to build teamwork and good attitude outside the office spaces,” she said.
“These opportunities are battery re-chargers and attitude adjusters,” she said. “Anytime you can get hands on experience with any living creature, it adds to your abilities and skills.”