BRADENTON – Manatee County’s official mascot, Snooty the manatee, drowned on Sunday, July 23, the day after his 69th birthday party at the Parker Aquarium at the South Florida Museum.
The air-breathing marine mammal apparently swam through an open access panel that is normally bolted shut at all four corners and became trapped in a small area used to access the aquarium’s life support system equipment, according to museum officials.
The 30-inch by 30-inch panel is on an aquarium wall underneath a four-foot-deep ledge in the aquarium that was designed for Snooty’s comfort at the same depth as his original four-foot-deep pool, said Jeff Rodgers, museum provost and COO, at a press conference.
The panel is large enough for the museum’s three young rehabilitating manatees, which weigh around 500-600 pounds each, to get in and out, but at 1,300 pounds, Snooty “was not able to extract himself,” he said.
Snooty had an 89-inch girth, museum Communications Manager Jessica Schubick said, adding that manatees are generally unable to swim backwards.
Museum officials are still gathering and reviewing information as to how the panel opened, Rodgers said.
The panel was last opened five years ago, and was not opened more frequently because the system was working, museum CEO Brynne Anne Besio said, adding that the panel is visually inspected daily by divers in the tank.
Workers discovered that Snooty was missing at 8 a.m. on Sunday, Rodgers said. The aquarium is not monitored overnight.
“It took us some time to figure out exactly how we were going to deal with that situation, but when we finally did get to Snooty, he was no longer alive,” he said.
No foul play is suspected.
“Snooty’s death was a heartbreaking accident and the circumstances are being investigated so we can be sure we know the full details of what happened,” museum officials said in a press release. “We know that our community and Snooty fans around the world share our grief. We will keep you updated as memorial plans develop.”
Museum staff has experienced an outpouring of concern, love and memories of Snooty, Rodgers said. Grief counselors have been called in to work with staff.
Snooty was the oldest known living manatee, according to Guinness World Records.
Among his many life achievements are participating in research experiments on manatee hearing and communication, an appearance on Captain Kangaroo and making thousands of people happy.
He was born in captivity on July 21,1948 at the Miami Aquarium Tackle Company, located on the Prinz Valdemar, a former Danish warship that had capsized in Miami harbor in 1926 and became a floating restaurant and aquarium.
Baby Snoots, as he was known then, came to Bradenton in 1949 for the DeSoto Celebration and lived in a pool exhibit at the downtown pier, now home to the Pier 22 restaurant.
He moved in 1966 to the South Florida Museum and was relocated to the new museum in 1993.
Snooty hosted 33 rehabilitating manatees beginning in 1998, when the Parker Manatee Aquarium joined the Manatee Rehabilitation Network.
In 2013, more than 6,000 guests visited the museum for his 65th birthday – the largest crowd the museum had ever seen.