How do you safely transport a 230-pound, eight-foot wide manta ray across state borders? Recently I shadowed a Georgia Aquarium overnight transport expedition to learn the in’s and out’s of animal shipment, and it all began with extensive preparations…
The Georgia Aquarium obtained a manta collecting permit from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation commission (FWC) to legally capture a manta ray for display. And while manta rays are listed as a “prohibited species,” by the FWC, the Georgia Aquarium applied for an Education/Exhibition Special Activity License. This particular license is strictly regulated by the state and only allows a limited number of fish species to be collected from Florida waters. “As a public aquarium that displays, educates the public about and carries out research on marine organisms, the Georgia Aquarium is eligible to apply for [this] license… [it] must be applied for on a yearly basis, and the cost is a $25 processing fee,” explained Timothy Mullican, DVM, Vice President of Zoological Operations at the Georgia Aquarium, the only facility in the United States with manta rays.
Since her capture, the unnamed female manta ray had been in holding at the Dolphin Conservation Field Station (DCFS) for several weeks before the coordinating of transport.
Preparations for a massive animal shipment, as you can imagine, require a great deal of expertise. The shipment team was intentionally formed with individuals of varying specialties, from logistics to water chemistry to veterinary science.
So on June 16th, 2010, I arrive at the Dolphin Conservation Field Station in St. Augustine, Florida to observe the transport preparations. I meet Kevin Curlee, Curator of Acquisitions for the Georgia Aquarium, and he explains his role to me. “Our job is to acquire, secure and quarantine animals for display,” he shares with me. “Essentially, go get ‘em and bring ‘em back alive.”
Kevin gives me a brief overview of what to expect during the manta ray shipment. Two people will physically ride in the transport truck, while the “chase car” will carry three people.Before today, multiple meetings have opened up the lines of communication on potential problems that could arise during transport. Kevin explains to me that generating a comprehensive action plan for each possible hazard helps ensure the safety of the manta ray during the transport process.
Turns out we’re going to be doing an overnight transport. The reason behind this? “We’ll miss traffic, it’s off-peak and we’ll arrive in Atlanta when the on-site crews are fresh,” says Kevin. Upon arrival at the Aquarium, the manta ray will be monitored around the clock for several days. “Also it’ll be cooler – the air temperature is 95 degrees here during the day, and it’s nice to run the truck in cooler conditions. It optimizes the ability to have a good transport.”
It’s in the morning light that I see the manta ray for the first time. She is a beautiful, sleek black animal swimming in her holding tank. According to Dr. Timothy Mullican, new animals participate in a vet-driven quarantine process for 30-45 days before joining the Aquarium’s collection. During this time period, the manta received thorough veterinary exams (such as studying the gills and skin), stretcher training and ladle food training. The manta ray hasn’t eaten for a few days, and she won’t be fed until she is successfully transported to Atlanta. “The reason for this is so she doesn’t regurgitate or release waste tonight,” Dr. Tim says.
Keith Hacke, Manager of Plant Engineering at the Aquarium is busy working on the trucks. He’s an expert on electrical, A/C and mechanical issues, and is making his final checks on both the transport and chase vehicles.
Akira Kanezaki, Mark Olsen, Reggie Jones, Jennie Jansen and Christopher Coco are also on site, following their task lists with a sense of purpose. Keith shares that “everyone is going through the steps, determining the best methods for later, taking the time to run them through several times.”
The team calls out to one another in loud voices in a series of human safety checks, and the transport tank’s lid is carefully removed.
A special lift bar and stretcher were designed for this manta ray to ensure there was no way she could fall out.
The stretcher is made from a nylon webbing, and the total technology allows for the manta to be lifted in a safe and natural manner, so that she doesn’t roll up into a burrito during her lift from the water.
Fifteen hundred gallons of water flow into the tank – about 8,000-9,000 pounds – and will be manipulated to match the ocean water the manta ray came from. And while this morning’s water fill is simply a test, during tonight’s 8-hour drive the water chemistry of the manta’s tank will be imperative to her safety. Over the course of the transport, the water must adjust slowly to within 10% of her new exhibit’s salinity, dissolved oxygen and pH levels, and must have the exact same temperature. On the pool’s interior walls, thin blue lines will communicate a wall obstruction to the manta ray while she is in transport.
During the afternoon, the Georgia Aquarium team will buy more tools, observe the animal, watch the weather, try to get rest, talk to the Aquarium in Atlanta to finalize details and run through steps another time.
“We’re starting tonight at 2:00 AM,” Kevin reminds me. “We’ll want to have clear heads. And it will be pitch black when we’re trying to catch her from the pool.”
Stay tuned for more posts in this blog series to follow the journey of a manta ray shipment from St. Augustine, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia!
Photo Credits: Jodi Kendall