Whether you are a local or traveler, you may assist in the maintenance or restoration of natural resources such as animal or plant life. To provide volunteer services is a hands-on approach to help protect nature, and typically allows you to learn from such experience.
A very special place where people may engage in volunteering activities resulting in an entertaining and educational experience is the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center in the Municipality of Bayamón, Puerto Rico. The staff and volunteers at this facility focus on the conservation of manatees by means of rescue and stranding response, rehabilitation and veterinary care, research about manatees’ population, and an educational outreach program in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center was created in 2009 as a result of an alliance between the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, Bayamón Campus, and the Caribbean Stranding Network. Currently, Dr. Antonio Mignucci Giannoni acts as Director of this facility.
Our volunteer and tour experiences in the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center ("Center") let us witness the staff and volunteers’ passion and commitment to take tremendous care of the four lovable manatees residing there: Mabó, Tureyguá and Aramaná (Antillean Manatees) (“Trichechus manatus manatus”), and Guacara, a Florida Manatee (“Trichechus manatus latirostris”) adopted by the Center. The outstanding nurture given by the staff and volunteers to the manatees showed their love for these marine mammals. This nurture and love is important so that manatees feel comfortable in their respective pools during their rehabilitation period.
The Center’s Rehabilitation and Veterinary Care Program aims for rehabilitated manatees to be released to their natural habitat: open waters. It is expected that Tureyguá, Aramaná and Mabó be released once they are rehabilitated, according to Sylma Escobar, a technician working under this program. She clarified that Guacara will not be released because it has negative buoyancy; and thus, sinks fast to the bottom. Sylma explained that negative buoyancy in open waters would not allow Guacara to breathe air at the surface from time to time as needed. So, Guacara is lucky to have been adopted by the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center.
While we had the privilege to do our bit for the benefit of the manatees, we remembered the saying “You are what you eat” that is typically told when one fosters a healthy and nutritious diet. We learned that manatees that are ready to eat solid food in the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center may eat Romaine lettuce, Iceberg lettuce, tubers, such as potatoes and white sweet potatoes, and fruits such as papaya, bananas, apples, pears, and honeydew melons. During our first volunteer task, we measured the food’s weight and cut fruits, tubers and lettuces into slices. Sylma stated that the manatee’s diet plan is created based on a formula that considers the mammal’s weight and age. Based on such formula, the staff calculates the kilocalories that each manatee needs on a daily basis. Sylma explained that once a manatee is on a soon-to-be-released status, its diet plan is adjusted gradually so that the manatee adapts to eating seagrass.
During our volunteer experience at the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center, Mabó, the 1-year-old and youngest manatee in the facility, was already eating fruits and lettuces. Its diet still included a formula made by combining soy-based formula used by human babies, a veterinary supplement fortified formula, and coconut or macadamia oil, among other ingredients, as stated by Sylma. We had the chance to see how Mabó’s formula was prepared by one of the volunteers.
The most exciting volunteer task was to meet the manatees and feed them. Mabó is a cute manatee baby that enjoys drinking formula in a bottle. We loved assisting the Rehabilitation and Veterinary Care Program’s Coordinator, Tamara Alejandro, during Mabó’s formula feeding time. It was gratifying to see how Mabó, Tureyguá, Aramaná, and Guacara ate their respective food. Though our one-on-one encounter with each manatee was fascinating, we sensed a special bonding with Guacara, the 12-year-old and oldest manatee in the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center.
While at the pools area, we also learned about tasks under the Tanks, Filters and Water Quality Program, such as cleaning and maintenance of the pools, water quality monitoring, and water filter tanks’ air pressure monitoring. Prior to feeding the manatees, we saw how volunteers provided maintenance services to the pools in order to remove any particles, leaves or insects. Volunteers monitor the pools’ water quality as they take water samples to further measure chlorine and PH levels, turbidness, and salinity, among others. We assisted a volunteer while taking pool water samples, measuring the water’s temperature, and reading a barometer to find out the water filter tanks’ air pressure.
You may provide volunteer services in the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center as a recurrent volunteer, an intern, or a community service collaborator, or for scouting project, research or work experience purposes during a short term period, subject to the Center’s approval of the volunteering services application. Thus, a variety of volunteer service options are available to suit your needs. For those whose time availability is limited, you may consider volunteering for work experience purposes. You may browse the Center’s website, manatipr.org, for details about the volunteer programs.
Also, tours in the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center are available, subject to prior reservation. During these tours, locals and travelers meet the rescued manatees and learn about the Center’s programs such as the Rehabilitation and Veterinary Care Program (e.g.: manatees’ diet plan, vitamins), the Tanks, Filters and Water Quality Program, the Rescue and Stranding Response Program, and the Manatees’ Population Research Program (e.g.: manatees’ monitoring through radio transmitters). The tour for adults and 10-year-old+ kids lasts around one and a half hour while that for younger kids (3-9 years olds) lasts around 45 minutes.
Those interested in volunteering at the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center may send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org . Those who desire to schedule a tour may send an email to email@example.com . T.: 787-400-2782, 787-279-1912, ext. 2070. W: www.manatipr.org
Note: Tamara Alejandro, Coordinator of the Rehabilitation and Veterinary Care Program, P.R. Manatee Conservation Center, appears in some of the article’s photographs. Photographs and videos were taken under the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center’s authorization, as applicable (under the authority of USFWS Permits # MA231088 and/or MA791721, and PRDNER CSN LOA 2014-2019 and/or PRDNER Endangered Species Scientific Permit).