As a marine mammal biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Allison Perna says “There is no such thing as a normal day.” Perna arrives at the FWC office located at Jacksonville Zoo at 8 a.m.; unless there is an emergency such as a marine mammal stranded on the beach.
“First thing is handling pending calls from the night before. It could be a carcass, an injured marine mammal sighting, or a tagged mammal sighting,” says Perna. If it’s a carcass she gets the location, decomposition rate, the size; such as a large adult or calf. All of which determines what equipment is brought out to the field to retrieve the carcass.
A significant amount of the work is carcass necropsies. Every step is photographed, organs removed, examined and logged. “We collect information from the animal. It’s a process,” explains fellow marine mammal biologist Nadia Gordon.
“We also respond to rescues, mostly due to boats striking manatees. It is mandatory to self-report when hitting a manatee. Many boaters don’t report it, but we do have responsible boaters that realize they may have hit something and they’ll call,” says Perna.
“Research-wise, we help out with the Northeast Florida Dolphin Consortium doing dolphin surveys of the St. Johns River,” Perna explains. The University of North Florida (UNF), Jacksonville University (JU) and Georgia Aquarium Conservation Field Station each take a section of the river. This office assists JU with the downtown Jacksonville section with dolphin identification surveys, counting and taking photos of as many dorsal fins as possible for cataloging and identification. Each dolphin has a unique dorsal fin like a fingerprint.
Public outreach is a big component of their work. “One of the things that surprised me the most about this job, and I like the most, is the amount of interaction I get with the public. Anyone who calls the FWC hotline is concerned about wildlife and passionate about natural resources. It’s a nice part of this job, being able to see that passion first hand,” says Perna.
Recently a mother manatee and calf were reported near Tomoka State Park. The mother was floating in the water, listing over to one side. Perna and Gordon put a team together for the challenging rescue. It takes eight people with the right combination of experience to perform this type of rescue. Volunteers that work at the zoo are part of the Jacksonville Zoo Marine Mammal Stranded Team. The team drove down with the rescue truck, towing the rescue boat. They launched the boat and searched for the mother and calf pair, while remaining in contact with the woman that reported it. Two people on the Volusia County Marine Mammal Stranded Team were also on location in a kayak observing the manatees and reporting their status. The mother was evasive, in fear of the boat. It’s strategic for the team to try and rescue the calf first, so it doesn’t become orphaned. Working together, the team was finally able to get the calf into safety onboard. By that time, the mother was exhausted from spending the afternoon trying to evade the rescue team. Finally, they brought her on board. There were no propeller marks on either of their backs. Her listing in the water was indicative of blunt force trauma. The team transferred the pair from the boat to the truck and took them to Sea World for rehab.
It is a strange thing to think about manatees cruising down I-95. Soon, they won’t have to. The Jacksonville Zoo is in the process of building a manatee critical care facility that will provide local care for injured manatees and shorten the commute. The rescued pair was recently released after a successful recovery.
“It’s wonderful to see it come full circle,” Gordon says. “It’s fantastic to see them swim back off into the wild.”
HOW YOU CAN SUPPORT MARINE MAMMALS
Minimize Monofilament Pollution
Fishing line and rope entanglement are dangerous to marine mammals, second only to watercraft. People should do everything they can to keep monofilament out of our waters. Not just for marine mammals, but all marine life including birds and turtles. Use monofilament recycling bins.
Boaters Be Aware
Manatees frequent the shallow waters by the shore often in mating herds. Stay clear of shallow water and wear polarized sunglasses to help sight nearby manatees. It’s important to follow regulations and speed limits in the area. If a boater does strike a manatee it is mandatory to call it into the hotline so the animal can be saved.
Keep Your Distance
Feeding and watering marine mammals are considered harassment, because it interrupts their natural behavior. They become acclimated to humans and are more apt to hang around boats. Marine mammals need to have a safe fear of humans and boats.
Learn about marine mammals that share our backyards with us. The more people know about them the more they can spread that awareness. Learning their natural history and behavior will aid the species in general.
Support Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Support FWC in their research and management efforts by buying the manatee license plate. Much of their funding comes from the sales of the plate.
Learn more at MyFWC.com
Wildlife Alert Hotline 888.404.3922
Biologists Allison Perna and Nadia Gordon haul a net on their boat.
Marine mammal biologist Allison Perna