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‘Manateeum’ fund raising gets gala start

By Staff | Mar 15, 2018

Most children grow up reading stories of mermaids, an aquatic creature with the upper body of a female and the tail of a fish. Although many of us have grown out of this fairytale, people like Maija Gadient Heberlein know the truth behind mermaids. The reality is, manatees are the creatures that began this mythical legend. Yes, the origin of the quixotic mermaid was actually inspired by the “sea cow.”

Yet as we’ve forced ourselves to accept that mermaids don’t exist, the manatees have faced endangerment and extinction. The same creatures which inspired our childhood fantasies, are now being threatened by humanity from loss of habitat and collisions with boats and ships. But people like Gadient are relentless to save the manatees. She wants to raise $2 million to protect manatees in Cape Coral waters, starting with the Manateeum Fundraiser Gala at the Cape Coral Yacht Club on Friday, March 23.

“This is one of my goals, to take care of the environment,” said Gadient.

Gadient is active in environmental projects in both Southwest Florida and Switzerland. She traveled to Cape Coral in 1996 and found a house on a canal which was frequent territory to a large aggregation of manatees at the time.

“I wanted to live with them,” she said of her decision to buy her home by the manatees.

Gadient has since then involved herself with manatee rescue and research alongside marine biologists.

To host the Manateeum Fundraiser Gala, Gadient has partnered with Cape Coral Parks and Recreation, and local wildlife protection groups including Cape Coral Wildlife and the Manatee Cape Connection. This event is set to raise funds to build the “Manateeum,” which will serve as a museum for Manatees, and a learning center for all Florida wildlife.

“The Manateeum will bring experts from around the state, if not the country, to come and see what we’re doing,” said Eric Nikolai, treasurer of the Manatee Cape Connection. “We are just beginning; the goal is expected to cost $2 million. This gala is the first of hopefully other activities we will do to raise money to make this vision a reality.”

Nikolai and Gadient connected in 2013 at Sirenia Vista Park, where the Manateeum is expected to be built. Sirenia Vista Park encompasses a manatee-shaped butterfly garden, a boardwalk to a Cape Coral waterfront, and a canopied picnic area. Sirenia is also home to manatees, osprey, and a nesting ground of up to 150 purple martins who migrate yearly to the purple martin gourds.

Sirenia Vista Park was once an empty land, where vagrants did drugs, loitered and started fires. Gadient saw how the beautiful land was going to waste, so she petitioned Cape Coral City in 2002 to create a park. Her request was granted, and over time she nourished Sirenia Vista Park into the serene oasis of Florida wildlife it is today.

“Sirenia, this is the Greek goddess for the mermaid. That is the family of all manatees in the world,” said Gadient.

Sirenia is the origin of the word siren, the ancient Greek etymology for mermaidsand Africaans for “sea cow.”

From working alongside manatee rescue teams, to starting a wildlife park, Gadient’s environmental activism is nothing short of inspiring. But, Gadient knows the abundance of works she has accomplished is a far cry from the challenges ahead.

“I am only here seasonally. But every year, I have to report 1-2 injured manatees.”

Gadient shared horrific stories she’s witnessed of manatee injuries.

“The manatees have to come up to the surface to breathe, and they are very slow moving. If the boat is speeding by, the manatees are caught and submerge. The boat cuts them and even crushes their ribs and lungs and they will often die within a short time,” she said.

Gadient believes the community is responsible, and can be doing more to protect manatees.

“The community, first of all, should have more speed limit enforcement for the boats.”

Gadient has foraged to preserve manatee life in her backyard canal, where the manatees have slowly depleted in numbers over the years.

“I wanted since forever and tried everyone to ask and make these a sanctuary. They say ‘no they cannot’, even though Cape Coral has so much water and canals like no one else has. But this little stretch of 400 meters, never became a sanctuary. Never.”

The manatee activist has even taken her plea for a safety zone for the beloved creature to Florida’s highest state office.

“I even wrote Gov. Scott. The only thing he did is make a Manatee Day too think about the manatees.”

Gadient doesn’t think that “manatee day” is enough, so she wants to start the Manateeum to raise year-round awareness for manatees.

“To have this sanctuary, I still hope I get this present,” she said.

But it won’t only be a present for Gadient and her manatees, but for Southwest Florida as whole.

“Ecotourism is a multibillion dollar industry nationwide. In Lee County alone, whenever I am at any of those parks, they’re busy – they’re full.” Nikolai said, in anticipation of the added value the Manateeum will bring to Cape Coral as a tourist destination. “When I volunteer at Manatee Park, almost every time I hear ‘I learned about manatees,’ and then they fall in love with the creature. It makes a huge impact on the average person when they go to an environmental park.”

Pascha Donaldson, the vice president of Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, has assisted in organizating the Manateeum Gala.

“This is Maija’s Story. She has planted the seeds and we are beginning to see them sprout.” Donaldson said. “Cape Coral needs a place of destination in order for people to learn the importance of clean water and what it means for the life of animals that depend on our estuaries and 400 miles of canals. The vision will become a reality with the support of the community who realize water is the life blood economically for not only Cape Coral but for all of Florida. The end result will be a win-win for all-people and wildlife, hopefully for a long time in the future for great-great grandkids to enjoy.”

Like Donaldson, Gradient also hopes the Manateeum will be a center for children to learn about wildlife.

“What I would like to have is inventing about how to save the manatees, they need help, and the children have great ideas. I believe in children; we just need to recognize their potential.”

The Manateeum Fundraiser Gala is being held on Friday, March 23, from 6-10 p.m. at the Cape Coral Yacht Club. Tickets are $99 for individuals or $1,200 for a VIP/Corporate table of 8, with limited seats remaining. There will be a silent auction where donors can bid on trips to resorts in Switzerland and a 60-inch TV, among others.

The master of ceremonies will be Lisa Spooner, news anchor at NBC 2-WBBH. The featured speakers will be Dr. Robert Bonde, aquatic research biologist and expert on manatees who is a full professor of the University of Florida. Also attending will be Elmer Tabor, “Mr. Cape Coral,”,who will talk about early life in Cape Coral since his family was the fifth family to settle in the Cape. T

The Manateeum Committee is part of the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, and all donations are tax deductible. Tickets may be purchased at Rotary Park (5505 Rose Garden Road, 8 a.m.- 4 p.m., Monday- Friday) or online at www.ManateeumFundraiser.com. You may also call (239) 549-4606.