The Georgia Aquarium obtained a manta collecting permit from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to legally capture a wild 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,” explains Timothy Mullican, DVM, Vice President of Zoological Operations at the Georgia Aquarium.
So now, after several months of preparation, the Georgia Aquarium team is finally ready to transport a 102-inch wide, 230-pound female manta ray from St. Augustine, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia, and I was invited to observe the transport. This is the story of our 8-hour journey across state lines…
It’s the middle of a hot, humid June night, but the crew moves with an alert purpose, their bodies illuminated by several spot lights surrounding the Dolphin Conservation Field Station (DCFS) property.
The main transport truck had been serviced, supplied and filled with gas. The back-up chase vehicle is now fully equipped; should the main transport break down en route, the holding tank could be rebuilt quickly in the case of the emergency. Kevin Curlee, Curator of Acquisitions, calls this careful planning “the detail within the detail” to ensure the safety of the manta ray. “Extreme care and concern for the manta will occur throughout the transport,” adds Timothy Mullican, DVM, Vice President of Zoological Operations at the Georgia Aquarium.
2:30 am – A diving team and veterinarian enter the holding pool to shift the manta ray onto a stretcher, and she is lifted into the air with a custom-made lift bar. This device prevents the manta’s wings from folding up during the brief moments in air. Everyone is on heightened alert during this step of the shipping process to ensure that the animal is safely moved into the transport truck pool.
2:42 am – The manta ray adjusts to her transport holding pool. Painted on the side of her tank are vertical blue lines, visually showing her the walls of the tank.
3:00 am – Akira Kanezaki, Associate Curator of Acquisitions, will take the first shift driving the transport vehicle while Mark Olsen, Senior Aquarist, will monitor the water chemistry of the manta ray holding pool. Devices within the truck’s cab connect directly to the manta’s tank, providing a constant reading of the water chemistry in the pool. During transport gradual adjustments to the water chemistry will ensure that the pool matches (or very closely matches) the water in the Ocean Voyager exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium. Also on site: Christopher Coco, Curator of Zoological Operations; Keith Hacke, Manager of Plant Engineering; Reggie Jones, Aquarist; Jennie Jansen, Senior Aquarist. Some of these individuals will ride in the chase vehicle while others will remain at the Dolphin Conservation Field Station (DCFS) in St. Augustine.
3:05 am – Dr. Tim and Kevin evaluate the manta ray while the transport truck and pool are secured.
5:30 am – The transport vehicle approaches the Florida/Georgia border. There will be a few weigh stations and an agricultural check point on the way. Additionally, before leaving the state of Florida, officials will review the aquarium’s Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission Education/Exhibition Special Activity License.
6:30 am – Just leaving the gas station, and water levels in the manta tank are checked. The water had been sloshing around a bit, so they plugged various areas along the top to reduce water movement.
9:30 am – The manta transport truck pulls over to a gas station due to a reading of falling oxygen levels in the pool water. Dr. Tim explains to me that “all fish excrete ammonia as a waste product of their metabolism, and ammonia can be toxic to fish at high levels. The aquarist checked the water quality [in transit] and noted a trace amount of ammonia in the water (well under the toxic level). However as a precaution, and because we want the transport water to match the water in OV (Ocean Voyager Exhibit) as closely as possible, a small amount of a powdered compound that binds ammonia was added. We also added some bicarbonate to control the pH. (pH is a measure of the acidity of the water). The O2 level (or D.O., which stands for Dissolved Oxygen) was maintained as a predetermined level and was not an issue during the transport.”
11:30 am – Dozens of Georgia Aquarium employees stand ready to assist moving the manta ray. She is carefully removed from her transport vehicle, then shifted into the holding pool of the Ocean Voyager exhibit. She also receives a health exam. “Just like a human who has their height and weight checked by a doctor at the beginning of routine physical exam, our veterinarians check the manta’s body measurements upon arrival,” says Dr. Tim. “These measurements go into the animal’s medical record as a way to make sure she is growing properly when compared against measurements that will be taken during future medical examinations of this manta.” The manta ray will be monitored around the clock for several days in her new home.
The Georgia Aquarium is the only facility in the United States with manta rays, and this new manta is now on display in the Ocean Voyager exhibit.
Learn more about the manta ray species and join me on a virtual experience of an aerial survey of wild manta ray populations off the coast of Florida.
Also, be sure to check out the previous post in this series – What’s it Take to Ship a Manta Ray? – to learn about animal transport preparations.
Photo Credits: Jodi Kendall