Cause of Snooty's death still under investigation

Officials at the South Florida Museum say they remain “shocked” by the death of Snooty, the world's oldest manatee in captivity, and they still hope to learn more about the accident that cost him his life.  But they insist his legacy will live on.

Snooty died over the weekend, just hours after a celebration to mark his 69th birthday at the Parker Manatee Aquarium.  Monday afternoon, museum representatives said a necropsy determined Snooty had drowned after becoming stuck in an equipment access hatch that had somehow become open in his tank.

“We’re still reviewing this,” explained the museum’s chief operating officer, Jeff Rodgers. “Something happened to dislodge the panel from that access opening.  We do not know what happened that allowed that panel to become dislodged.  None of our cameras are telling us any of that right now; we cannot see into the bottom of the tank.”

RELATED: Snooty, oldest manatee in captivity, dies at 69


Rodgers said the hatch is normally held shut by four bolts and has not been opened by staff in five years.  But something caused it to open, and the 89-inch-wide, 1,300-pound manatee apparently could not free himself after becoming stuck.

“Manatees are generally unable to swim backwards,” communications director Jessica Schubick offered. “A manatee of his size; we’ve seen other examples in the wild that manatees in narrow spaces can’t maneuver themselves to turn around.”

Rodgers said he hoped the investigation would eventually reveal what caused the panel to open.

“No one wants to understand what happened here more than we do,” he added.

Meanwhile, the makeshift memorial continued to grow outside the South Florida Museum as the community learned of the manatee's death. Visitors left cards, carrots, lettuce and flowers outside the museum entrance, and nearby stores even changed their signs in response to the news.

“I knew him. My daughter knew him. My grandkids knew him. It's a generational thing," said Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore.  “It's totally our fabric of where we all grew up. We don't know anything but Snooty. So hopefully we can have a healing process and get through all this and do something good.”

Museum officials say they are already discussing a permanent memorial to Snooty, but suggested that – in a community where schoolchildren regularly visited the celebrity manatee – Snooty would live on in the hearts and minds of his many fans when the museum reopens Tuesday.

“Certainly every day we honor Snooty in the aquarium by talking about conservation of the species and the environment,” museum CEO Brynne Anne Besio offered.