Snooty, the world’s oldest captive manatee, spent his final 48 hours making history and eating cake.
The world famous sea cow turned 69 on Friday and celebrated another year in the Guinness Book of World Records with a blow-out party Saturday afternoon. Hundreds of guests sang him “Happy Birthday” at noon, like they’ve done every year at the South Florida Museum since 1993, then watched Snooty devour a cake-shaped tower of pineapple, strawberries and carrots.
They clapped and cheered as the manatee — who had outlived his brethren in the wild by roughly half a century — used his abnormally strong pectoral muscles to climb on the edge of his 60,000 gallon tank and affectionately nuzzle his handlers.
“We hope he keeps living,” Evangeline Boston told the local newspaper, “so we can keep seeing him.”
But Snooty’s record setting 69th birthday would be the creature’s last.
In the wee overnight hours, Snooty and his manatee tank-mates, Randall, Baca and Gale, managed to swim into an underwater hallway used to access plumbing for the exhibit’s life support system, officials with the Bradenton, Florida, museum said. The area is usually blocked off by a bolted panel, but it somehow became dislodged.
Randall, Baca and Gale, all weighing between 500 and 600 pounds, were able to navigate their way out and up to the surface, where they could breathe again.
It appears Snooty, more than twice their size, was unable to turn himself around.
His large and weathered body wasn’t discovered until Sunday morning, when Parker Manatee Aquarium staff were greeted by Randall, Baca and Gale — but no Snooty.
“It appears that Snooty was able to get into the area,” Jeff Rodgers, the South Florida Museum’s provost and chief operating officer said Sunday afternoon during a news conference, “but he was not able to extract himself from that situation.”
Museum CEO Brynne Anne Besio called Snooty’s death a “heartbreaking accident” and said in a statement that aquarium staff is “quite devastated.” Snooty’s body will be taken to St. Petersburg, Florida, where a necropsy, or animal autopsy, will be performed at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory, officials said.
Sorrowful tributes from the mayor, sheriff and other top tier government officials in Manatee County flooded local newspapers. On social media, news of Snooty’s death spread to the millions of visitors he had charmed over his seven decades in captivity.
Mourners left flowers, cards and heads of romaine lettuce — Snooty’s favorite snack — outside the museum in his memory. Adults and children wept at the news.
Mayor Wayne Poston told the Sarasota Herald Tribune he was “heartbroken.”
“Bradenton lost its most iconic citizen,” he said.
Since birth, the world-renowned manatee has been an integral representation of Florida’s battle to protect the once endangered species and teach the masses just how smart, intuitive and vulnerable manatees can be — particularly to the thousands of school children who visited every year.
Harry Truman was in the White House and the Endangered Species Act did not exist when Snooty was born in Miami aboard a capsized Danish warship
Throughout his lifetime, Snooty served as a test subject for researchers studying manatee communication and hearing. Joe Moore, a pioneering manatee biologist, visited Snooty in 1950 and used his ability to perform tricks as early evidence of the creatures’ intelligence, according to a Tampa Bay Times timeline.
Despite his generally affectionate ways, Snooty’s attitude was at times, well, snooty. He spent his early decades alone in small, confined tanks. He eventually graduated to the 60,000 gallon tank in 1993 and finally had enough room for company. In the quarter century since, Snooty bunked with dozens of injured or orphaned manatees that needed space to rehabilitate before returning to the wild.
He spent his days eating 80 pounds of vegetables, barrel rolling for attention and sometimes sleeping on his back. Those who knew him best began to assign Snooty human attributes. He was ticklish, moody, at times standoffish.
Because he drew massive crowds who were taught wildlife conservation during their visits, a museum staffer once called Snooty their “spokesman-a-tee.”
For his 60th birthday, the Save the Manatees Club secured him an AARP membership.
James Powell, a Sarasota manatee biologist, told the Tampa Bay Times that Snooty has been “a manatee ambassador forever.”
“I am trying to get over the shock,” Poston, the mayor, told the Bradenton Herald. “We will have a lot of conversations about how to honor him. But we can’t replace him. We can never replace him.”