Disney releases orphaned manatee at Blue Spring State Park

The last time Bock the manatee saw the St. Johns River, he was a 66-pound orphan calf, separated from his mother for three days.

Nearly eight years and 1,000 pounds later, Bock was released by a Walt Disney World team Tuesday to the river’s main manatee haven, the warm waters of Blue Spring.

Bock is the first of three manatees being released this week at Blue Spring State Park — and the first of 20 manatees being released from a federal quarantine of sea cows exposed to a skin-lesion-causing virus.

He never developed any lesions, but his release was delayed because he had been swimming with a manatee that had the wartlike lesions caused by a papilloma virus.

In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the quarantine could be lifted because this particular papilloma was common to wild manatees, and that it was no more serious than the a common cold sore.

“It’s annoying for the animal, but it doesn’t appear to be life-threatening,” said federal agency spokesman Chuck Underwood. “We erred on the side of caution so that we can be sure that we aren’t introducing something isn’t already in the environment.”

In 2001, the manatee was had been rescued near Jacksonville after state biologists hadn’t seen his mother in three days. First reared at SeaWorld Orlando, he was transferred to The Seas with Nemo and Friends at Epcot in 2003.

Jane Davis, aquarium curator at The Seas, said Bock was fed water hyacinth and hydrilla to prepare him for release.

Early in his captive years, Bock shared a tank with a manatee that had papilloma lesions. Not knowing whether this was unique to captive manatees, federal officials decided to put all manatees with lesions, and their tank-mates, under quarantine.

For the past 10 years, scientists studied this papilloma and even mapped out the DNA sequence for the virus. Some papilloma viruses can be deadly, such as the human version that causes cervical cancer, while others are less serious. Researchers found that the manatee version is minor and has probably evolved with the animal for centuries. With those assurances, federal officials declared that manatees without the lesions, or without any current lesions, could be set free if otherwise healthy.

Two other manatees, also held under quarantine, will be released at the park Thursday. They are a female named Amber, who was rescued as a calf and reared alongside Bock at SeaWorld, and a female named Rita, who weighs 3,000 pounds and will be lowered into the spring with a crane.

They’ll join Bock, who was fitted with a satellite tag, so that scientists can monitor his progress in the wild. The public People can track him at wildtracks.org.

On Tuesday, Bock’s release attracted other manatees, which swam to him as he gingerly explored the waters where the spring run meets the St. Johns.

“He has already shown great behaviors, and I think he’ll be successful,” said Davis, as she watched him swim with the other manatees.


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