During the summer of 2015, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) began receiving reports of a manatee in Lake Harris, Leesburg, Lake County. Through photos obtained by citizens at the time of their sightings, it was determined there were actually two subadult to adult size manatees in the upper chain lake system of the Ocklawaha. As the public sightings continued to roll in during late fall, concerns increased as it appeared there might not be adequate warm water in the area for manatee survival through a winter. There were also concerns regarding the manatees’ ability to travel north back through the three lock systems they had transverse in spring to get to the chain of lakes. Fliers were placed at local marinas and boat ramps asking the public to keep a look out for the animals and to report their sightings right away to the FWC wildlife hotline number. On 19 August, the body of a medium size adult male was recovered at the Moss Bluff Lock. The cause of death was not determined because his carcass was too decompose at recovery but it did not have any obvious signs of trauma.
During January and February, a single manatee was being reported still in the chain of lake system. On Valentine’s Day 2016, a manatee was reported in the Venetian Gardens canals and several agencies responded and rescued the manatee before noon. The manatee was confirmed a female, in very poor condition, with extensive cold stress over her entire body. Her condition was considered critical with many of her rescuers not expecting her to survive. She was transported to Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, one of only three manatee critical care facilities, to rehabilitate from her cold stress condition. She received extensive care at the zoo for her condition for almost three months and while there received the name “Leesburg”, noting the closest location where she was rescued.
On 11 May, 2016, “Leesburg” was released into the St. Johns River at Welaka, Putnam County. The release sight was chosen because it was fairly close to the entrance into the Ocklawaha River system, an area “Leesburg” would have passed in the past thus placing her back into a familiar area for navigation. She weighed 1100lbs and just under 9ft long at release and considered a small adult just reaching the age length of becoming reproductively active. “Leesburg” was outfitted with manatee tracking gear, which contained a GPS tag, so researchers from Sea to Shore Alliance could monitor her activities and have the opportunity to study her movement and habitat use if she moved back into the Ocklawaha system.
“Leesburg” moved to the Buckman lock and was locked through just two days after her release. Her movement in the Ocklawaha basin from May to September suggested she was very familiar with the system and found ample amounts of food to feed on and other manatees to socialize with. “Leesburg” began to travel south up the Ocklawaha on the 28 September and was locked through the Moss Bluff lock on 30 September. She reached Lake Griffin on 1 October and moved through the Burrell Lock on 10 October reaching Lake Harris that same day. “Leesburg” moved between Lake Harris and Lake Denham for several days before returning to Lake Griffin on 22 October. During the late hours of 31 October, the GPS tag received damage from an alligator bite causing it to partially fill with water and sink just below the water column. This stopped all routine transmissions on the location of “Leesburg”, but researchers were able to still track her with some additional equipment inside the belt around her peduncle.
As winter set in, “Leesburg” remained in the lake chain of Lake Griffin, Lake Eustis and Lake Harris feeding on primarily hydrilla and coontail (submerged vegetation). Sea to Shore researchers were having a very difficult time changing out her malfunctioning tag because of her avoidance behavior but on 16 December, a new tag was exchanged. “Leesburg” was confirmed at that time to be in great condition with no cold stress apparent on her body. Due to the mild winter conditions in December, no concern was indicated at that time. “Leesburg” movement over the next few weeks indicated she was utilizing the entire Lake Harris and Little Lake Harris shoreline, while also utilizing Palatlakaha and Mooring Cove springs during cold fronts. This was wonderful news since it was not previously clear if she had knowledge of where to go for warm water during a cold front. Unfortunately, the day after Christmas on the 26th of December, all of her tracking gear fell off, ending her GPS monitoring option for the season. This did not stop Sea to Shore staff. Since they had obtained valuable information on manatee habitat use of the area, they were able to routinely monitor specific springs to help with the health assessment of “Leesburg” through the winter. They also had formed a great network of citizens that either ventured out on their boats on a routine basis or lived by the water and could report their sightings of manatees for additional monitoring of “Leesburg” activity. Through this join effort, two “Leesburg” sightings were collected or reported almost weekly through the end of March.
Sea to Shore researchers did try several times to retag “Leesburg” but her avoidance behavior inhibited their efforts. However, during one of their attempts, she was visually confirmed to be pregnant. Manatee gestation period is 12-13 months. Adding a year to her release date and another month before she was observed in close proximity to more than one male manatee, her birthing date would be from mid-June to mid-July.
Public visuals of manatees in the chain of lakes increased in April through May, with up to three manatees confirmed in the system at a given time. “Leesburg” was reported and confirmed from photo identification to have utilized Lake Harris, Lake Eustis, Lake Dora and Lake Beauclair from March to May with the last visual reported of her on 20 May in Lake Eustis.
Leesburg was resighted at a small spring in the St. Johns River by S2S staff on 5 Jan 2018. With great enthusiasm she was documented with a small calf. Both were in great condition.