The world's oldest-known manatee in captivity, Snooty, has died in a tragic accident, the South Florida Museum says.
The beloved marine animal was found dead during a check of his enclosure Sunday morning, the museum said.
"Snooty was found in an underwater area only used to access plumbing for the exhibit life support system. Early indications are that a panel that is kept bolted shut had somehow been dislodged and that Snooty was able to swim in," the museum said in a statement.
"Snooty's death was a heartbreaking accident and we're all quite devastated about his passing," Brynne Anne Besio, the museum's CEO said in the statement.
Snooty's birth in 1948 at the Miami Aquarium was the first recorded birth of a manatee in human care, the museum said. He had lived at the museum in Bradenton, a suburb of Tampa, since 1949 and been Manatee County's official mascot since 1979.
The Guinness World Records lists Snooty as the oldest manatee in captivity and he turned 69 on July 21. Besio told a news conference that more than 5,000 people had turned out to celebrate his birthday the following day.
"We heard so many wonderful stories of how much Snooty meant to people and how he was a part of their lives," Besio said. "Snooty was important to so many. Today, we are getting an outpouring of love and support from our community and all of Snooty's fans."
Following the announcement of his death, mourners left flowers at the aquarium to pay their respects.
Three other manatees that shared Snooty's habitat are in good condition, the museum said. The museum's COO Jeff Rodgers told media that it appeared the younger manatees had entered the same area as Snooty, but that while they had managed to escape -- it appeared he had been unable to turn around.
Rodgers said that Snooty weighed about 1,300 pounds (589 kg) whereas the other manatees -- who are at the museum as part of a rehabilitation program -- weighed around 500-600 pounds (226-272 kg).
Rodgers said there had been "no indication of any foul play or anything malicious" with regards to Snooty's death and that a necropsy -- or animal autopsy -- would be carried out.
"Snooty's very important to this community. He's been with us for 68 years. Generations have grown up with that manatee. The emotional outpourings that we've heard today, we grieve right along with these folks," Rodgers said."A lot of people loved that manatee, we loved him too."