Tribute to Amber
By Wayne Hartley & Cora Berchem, Save the Manatee Club
Date: March 11, 2020
On February 18th, we were notified that a dead manatee had been towed into Holly Bluff Marina the previous day. Holly Bluff is about four miles north of Blue Spring State Park, located in Orange City, Florida. With the morning count over, we went to Holly Bluff and ID’d the large dead female as Amber, BS286.
Amber was a wonderful manatee who touched the lives of many people. On March 5, 2001, manatee Ann brought her twins Amanda and Amber into the Blue Spring run. It caused great excitement as Ann had been in on February 20th and 21st with no calves. Some thought was given to naming the calves Thelma and Louise to echo the movie, but we went with Amber and Amanda instead. At some point, probably around March 11th, Ann called the twins to go out in the river so she could feed. When Amanda came, Ann left with her, leaving Amber behind alone. As Wayne says, sometimes manatee mothers have a problem counting past one! Wayne was informed a calf was alone in the run on March 12th. On March 13th, he found Amber was the lone calf. She was wandering the run as if searching for her mother and tried to nurse on any manatee that came in. Manatee Phalcon was willing but, being only one year old herself, she was no replacement for a mother. With the weather warming up, researchers from Save the Manatee Club, SeaWorld Orlando, and the U.S. Geological Survey Sirenia Project did not expect Ann to return, so the decision was made to capture Amber. SeaWorld came out the next day and captured Amber to bring her in for rehabilitation. She was only 68 pounds and almost four feet long when rescued. When Amber got to SeaWorld, she rushed to Destiny, another manatee that had previously been rescued from Blue Spring, and began to nurse.
Amber had to age and grow to the proper release size determined by guidelines from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service before she was released. Unfortunately, during that time she was exposed to a papilloma virus. Until the virus could be confirmed in the wild, no manatees exposed to it could be released. Finally, on February 26, 2009, Amber was released at Blue Spring together with manatee Rita, and just two days after manatee Bock, another manatee that had been undergoing rehabilitation at SeaWorld. Amber was outfitted with a satellite tracking device so researchers from Sea to Shore Alliance could monitor her movements and make sure she would adapt well to life in the wild. Amber loved to spend time in Lake Woodruff, Lake Dexter, and Tick Island Creek. In March of 2010 she moved south to Lake Monroe. Amber was noted to be pregnant on December 10, 2009, but sadly the pregnancy resulted in a stillbirth. After her first unsuccessful birth, Amber had successful calves in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017. Amber even seemed to have adopted a calf in 2018. She liked to have her calves in or near the park and brought them in often, especially during the summer time — very much to the entertainment of park visitors. Amber’s favorite place to rest was close to the boardwalk in Transect 7, a location in the spring run where visitors could easily see her — compared to most manatees who would hide out on the opposite side of the spring run.
The cause of Amber’s death could not be determined. She was pregnant with a female calf when she died.
Many People Remember Amber for the Wonderful Manatee She Was:
Amber was the “annoyance” I looked forward to every day in the summer of 2015. For months she would come in to the spring run with her calf every morning at 11 a.m. on the dot, giving visitors the awe-inspiring up close and personal view of one of Florida’s most iconic residents. At the same time she drove me insane trying to shuffle rangers and volunteers down to the spring run and boil to make sure people were not getting too up close and personal. I looked forward to my 11 a.m. strolls getting me away from my computer and put into perspective how little the thing I was worried about mattered in the grand scheme of conservation work. She was a gentle morning reminder to schedule time to enjoy a beautiful place with the people you love and stick to that schedule.
— Rachel Fonvielle, former Blue Spring State Park Service Specialist.
Amber was one of the darlings of Blue Spring. Always interested in what was going on, whether it was me trying to tag another manatee, or swimmers at the boil. I remember her squishing her face against my mask. She felt a great security at Blue Spring and enjoyed showing off her calves. She will be greatly missed.
—Christy Rush, former Florida Fish and Wildife Conservation Commission Marine Mammal Biologist
Amber’s death breaks my heart. She was a baby when I started and I always love telling her story.
—Becca Downey, SeaWorld Orlando Manatee Care Staff
On the day of her rescue, Robert Wagoner from SeaWorld went down the bank with a butterfly net. It kept snagging in tree limbs so Bob finally tossed it aside picked up Amber in his arms and carried her up the steep bank to the truck.
—Wayne Hartley, Manatee Specialist, Save the Manatee Club
To this day I tell customers on my boat tour the story of Amber. The day Amber was released, her mom Ann and sister Amanda were in the spring run, almost as if they were waiting for her. To me this is an illustration of non-verbal communication that exists between all species and the emotional connections, manatees have with each other. Amber’s story will always live on.
—Capt. Rebecca, St. John’s River Cruises
In the science field we know better than to anthropomorphize, but as the biologist responsible for observing and recording her behavioral data back when she was being monitored, I couldn’t help but notice Amber’s irrepressible personality. Bright, curious, and social, she began nosing her way into groups soon after her release, but still spent most of her time with Bock after their shared Blue Spring debut. From making my job easier by showcasing clearly-defined, confident behaviors to bringing each of her new calves in to the spring to be adored, her intrepid nature made even large gators move over to make way for her. This audacious girl will stay in our memories long after her time exploring the St. John’s River has ended.
—Melody Fischer, former biologist Sea to Shore Alliance
I was going through an incredibly hard time in November 2018. When doing the morning manatee count on Thanksgiving Day, Amber came right up to the canoe from under the logs with her calf staring at me with her gentle eyes and letting me take the most beautiful photos of her. They were later included in the 2020 Save the Manatee Club calendar and the race bib for the 2020 Save the Manatee 5K. Little did I know that February 15, 2020 would be the last time I saw her alive, peacefully leaving the spring run with Buckeye and a juvenile in tow. She will be forever missed.
—Cora Berchem, Director of Multimedia and Research Associate, Save the Manatee Club
I first saw Amber when she and manatee Bock were being rehabilitated at SeaWorld, Orlando. The two were inseparable. I could spend my whole day at SeaWorld watching them. My husband actually proposed to me in front of the underground manatee exhibit because he knew it was one of my favorite places on earth. After I said yes, I glanced over and I SWEAR Amber and Bock were both at the glass, side by side, faced in our direction. I don’t know that they could see us, but it looked like they were watching this incredibly happy moment in my life. I am heartbroken at her passing.
—Ellen Schwarz – via Facebook
I was one of the SeaWorld keepers staff that was on duty when she arrived at our park and was also one of the keepers who helped tube feed and later bottle feed her till she became a “big girl” and started eating whole food (lots and lots of romaine lettuce) with the other girls. She was a joy to be around and I was happy (yet sad) when we could release her back into the wild.
—Jeff Dolan – via Facebook