Most passengers willingly leave the ship at the end of the cruise. Earlier this year, however, one sailor stubbornly stayed onboard Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, which docks in Miami. It took a man with a net to capture and remove the stowaway, a pint-size burrowing owl.
“It was kind of stressful, especially after missing it twice,” said Ricardo Zambrano, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “It was trap-weary and onto us. We had to do it quickly, before passengers came back onboard.”
For at least two weeks in January, the bird of prey, a common resident in southern Florida, joined other vacationers sailing around the Caribbean. Zambrano said Wildlife Rescue of Dade County contacted his state agency after noticing social media posts starring the unusual passenger with the feathery brown coat and yolk-yellow eyes.
On Jan. 21, when the ship was between sailings, Zambrano arrived at the port, ready to rescue. But first, he had to gain permission to board from the cruise line and customs. Once cleared, he stepped on deck with a small arsenal of trapping gear: a hand net, a mist net and, for especially difficult subjects, a net gun.
“This was a last resort,” he said of the equipment that expels a net like Spider-Man’s wrists. “We didn’t want to hurt the owl.”
He located the bird perched on an exit sign in the ship’s Central Park, a pastoral setting with natural and synthetic vegetation. Zambrano first employed the mist nest, which he strung across the open space like a giant volleyball net. Ideally, the owl would be spooked by the commotion and fly right into the trap. But the owl wasn’t playing this game.
“It got wise to the net and flew right over it,” he said.
Zambrano pulled out the hand net, which resembles an angler’s landing net. He swooped, and the wily owl slipped underneath. The situation grew more difficult as the bird became more skittish. It flew off and landed on the balcony railing of a 10th-floor stateroom.
Zambrano entered the empty cabin and cautiously opened the balcony doors. Crew members positioned below jumped up and down to distract the bird from its imminent capture. Zambrano netted his prize, placed it in a kennel and disembarked.
“I got lucky,” he said after the hourlong ordeal.
Burrowing owls are often spotted at schools, airports, parks and golf courses. But this isn’t the first time an owl has tested its sea legs. In 2010, rescuers removed an owl from a mini-golf course hole on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas in Fort Lauderdale.
Zambrano said burrowing owls don’t always hang out in their subterranean digs; they chill aboveground, too. “Sometimes they sit around for days or weeks in the shade,” he said, describing behavior that could also apply to cruisers.
The FWCC team transported the owl to the South Florida Wildlife Center, where the staff assessed its health. No injuries were reported, but the owl was “very skinny,” said Carolina Montano, the center’s director of outreach. Unlike typical cruisers, it had lost weight.
The rehab facility fattened the owl up with a diet of bugs and small rodents. Less than a month later, it was healthy enough to return to the wild.
On Feb. 18, Project Perch released the former cruiser in Davie, Fla. Its new home is about 25 miles north of the cruise terminal, as the owl flies.