That Time a Manatee Took a Commercial Plane to San Francisco

Affectionately named “Butterball,” the Amazonian manatee called San Francisco home for over 15 years until his untimely death caused by a rare fish disease.

Manatees are enigmatic, majestic, lovingly lethargic creatures. They exist in both ancient and modern-day folklore — Mother Nature’s own “mermaids,” if you will. In fact, sea cows, which became extinct sometime in the 18th century (less than 30 years after they were first discovered by Arctic explorers) were considered “sirens” by settlers and marine scouts. 

Alas, the current state of the planet’s manatees remains bleak. All three extant species of manatees are considered at risk of extinction; the only remaining species of dugong left on Earth is also considered vulnerable to extinction. And with the climate crisis heating their breeding and grazing waters to inhabitable extremes, it’s quite plausible these 1,000-pound beasts could disappear in the wild entirely within the next century.

Suffice it to say that every single manatee matters. It’s one reason why a young Amazonian manatee flew on a commercial airline en route to San Francisco in 1967 after being saved from a fish market.

“In 1967, an [Cal Academy] trustee came across a young Amazonian manatee at a South American fish market,” reads a tweet from a thread authored by Senior Director of Steinhart Aquarium Bart Shepherd that tells the tale of the San Francisco manatee. “He bought the manatee, secured a coach seat on a commercial airline, and sent it back to SF, where Steinhart Superintendent Earl Herald welcomed it with open arms (literally).”

Aptly called “Butterball,” the manatee was immediately seen by a veterinarian upon arrival. Manatees can survive a certain amount of time outside of water — though not too long; their sheer mass is capable of crushing their internal organs outside of the buoyancy their watery realms — and are capable of holding their breath for extended periods of time. (Amazonian manatees, for example, can hold their breaths for 15 minutes before returning to the surface.)

Poor Butterball had apparently suffered a harpoon wound, which led to a bone infection called osteomyelitis. Thankfully, Butterball managed to make a full recovery.

Over the next 17 years, Butterball stole hearts and captured the attention of millions of aquarium visitors. He, too, was dubbed by keepers the “World’s Messiest Eater” — a moniker later placed on Butterball’s display — for his sloppy manner of eating entire heads of lettuces and cabbages, leaving the remnants of his meals covering the surface of his tank like lilypads.

In fact, Butterball’s tank evolved into something of a legend, becoming an inspiration for a multi-dimensional illustration that had “Disney-like” depths when viewed through the light at certain angles.

Butterball’s health began to decline in the 1980s.  A litany of medical concerns that ranged from constipation to skin infections plagued the large mammal at increasing frequencies. Butterball even lost his famous appetite as his health slipped.

Unfortunately, a rare infection mostly observed in fish caused by the Mycobacterium marinum bacteria — “often called ‘fish tuberculosis’” — would later prove fatal for the manatee. This instance of the disease was so uncommon in fact that its manifestation in Butterball was later included in a published paper by then-Steinhart Aquarium Pathologist Patricia Morales.

Had Butterball not succumbed to the disease, it’s likely he could’ve lived well into his 60s — and could’ve still been around in SF, to this day.

Nevertheless, Butterball’s undeniable charisma and iconoclasm live on to this day.

“Butterball is one of the animals we are most asked about by the public,” reads the final threaded tweet by Shpahrd about the beloved manatee. “Clearly he had an impact, greeting millions of people over the 17 years he lived at Steinhart Aquarium.”

RIP, you very round king. May you continue to live on in our hearts for decades to come — and may your kin continue occupying the slow-moving waters around South America for many centuries.

Feature image: Courtesy of Twitter via [at]SteinhartBart

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