POWELL, Ohio (WCMH) — The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is home to some incredible animals and programs, but the most impressive might be one that is taken for granted, Manatee Coast. As one of three programs outside of Florida, Central Ohio is lucky to have access to manatees and such an impressive facility.

“I’ve seen virtually every manatee habitat in North America. And I know I’m a little biased but I think ours is the best,” said Tom Schmid, CEO of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Built in 1999, Manatee Coast was the first program partner outside of Florida to care for manatees. But how did this massive exhibit come to be?

“So the story goes that Jack Hanna was down in Florida filming his show and had some interactions with manatees and got to know their story.  He came back here and said, we need to stop everything we’re doing and we need to be part of this manatee rehabilitation release program,” said Becky Ellsworth, curator of the Shores and Aquariums exhibit.

So far, 32 manatees have been returned to the wild, thanks to the incredible care team and this facility.

“First of all, the sheer size of this habitat. It’s several hundred thousand gallons of water, which means we can accommodate up to 10 manatees. The extraordinary living bio that we have in here with live mangroves really enhances the environment and makes it look very traditional to what you would see in the coastal Florida region. And of course, the sunlight, and the skylight, we actually have a retractable roof so we can open that roof. We can allow rain to come in. We can allow different temperatures and different climate so we can create the best climate for the manatees here,” said Schmid.

You’ll also find stingrays, fish, a turtle and pelicans, something that the care team hopes will prepare the manatees for life back in the wild.

“There’s no way of knowing but certainly having those animals and that interaction is going to be important because they’re not here long-term. They are short-term. They’re going to be turning around and going to Florida,” said Ellsworth.

To learn more about the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and Manatee Coast, visit https://www.columbuszoo.org/