This manatee calf, badly injured by a boat, was
rescued, along with its mother, from a Cortez canal.
It was euthanized at Lowry Park Zoo due to the
serious nature of its injuries. The mother was released in Cortez.
The manatee was in knee deep water off Bradenton Beach, and hadn’t moved for a long time, not even to raise its nose above the water line to take a breath.
A few careful steps in his direction to check for injuries got his attention. He swam straight over, stopped, and turned to one side, revealing a long propeller cut on his side.
Asking someone with a cell phone to call the FWC for help was futile – they were using the phone to take photos and post them to facebook.
Pleading with beachgoers to please stay away, also futile.
Explaining the law against harassing manatees, futile.
Telling them he was badly injured, futile.
Begging them not to chase him away where rescuers wouldn’t be able to find him, futile. Shouting, also futile.
After running for a phone, the FWC said the boat was an hour away, but since he was so close to shore, someone could reach him from land.
But by the time the land officer called back to get directions, beachgoers had gotten their souvenirs of the poor creature, charging into the water, carrying their kids on their shoulders and their phone cameras in hand, trying to pet him, scaring him away, out of sight, out of the range of rescuers, who were sorry, but since he could no longer be reached from the land, they weren’t coming anymore, and after all, he was probably so scared, he would just keep swimming into deeper water and the boat would never find him either.
Manatee’s fate, unknown.
A few days later, in Cortez, Junie Guthrie heard a thud in the canal behind the house. A speeding boat had hit a manatee calf.
Cortezians quickly spread the word, and after what seemed like an eternity, rescuers came and took the badly injured calf - and its uninjured, but previously prop-scarred mother - to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. Like most mammals, calves don’t fare well without their mothers.
“This has been a particularly sad case for our manatee rehab team as the animal was so young and had experienced a great deal of physical trauma,” said Rachel Nelson, a spokeswoman for the zoo, where they did radiographs and CT scans, found a blood clot in his lung, and determined that his prognosis was grim.
After seeing no improvement in more than a week, they decided to euthanize the calf and release the mother, “who had been very unsettled and anxious,” she said.
The mother was released last week, alone, in Cortez, where Betty Guthrie was disgusted and saddened to hear about it.
“Sometimes when I holler ‘Manatee!’ at boaters, they look up in the trees,” she said, adding that most of the boaters who pass by her home are tourists who don’t know anything about manatees.
Record high deaths
That’s what Manatee Awareness Month is for, but the annual celebration in November of the state marine mammal and Manatee County’s namesake is more of a wake this year.
2013 is the deadliest year ever for the endangered Florida manatee.
Through Oct. 25, 766 manatees died, 62 from watercraft strikes, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and the year’s not over yet.
Five of the deaths were in Manatee County, two from watercraft strikes, not counting the Cortez calf. Add him to the list, and the first 10 months of this year have surpassed the old record year for manatee deaths, 2010, when 766 manatees died.
According to the last aerial survey done in 2011, 4,834 manatees were spotted in the state, so that means nearly 16 percent of the known population was lost so far this year.
Due to the declining population, the manatee is listed as “endangered” under both federal and state endangered species laws, but repeatedly has been considered for downlisting to “threatened” status by both federal and state regulators. Downlisting could result in fewer protections for manatees, such as slow speed manatee zones.
Many seasonal manatee protection zones go into effect this month, when manatees begin to migrate to warmer waters, where they can survive cold winters.
Cold caused 30 deaths this year so far, according to FWC; other causes are a red tide bloom in southwest Florida and an algal bloom in Brevard County, according to the Save the Manatee Club.
More than 200 died after exposure to red tide, and those that survived exposure may not be in the clear, according to research by Dr. Cathy Walsh of Mote Marine Laboratory, who found that red tide brevetoxins may compromise the manatees’ immune systems, leaving them more susceptible to disease.
Save the manatees
Here’s how to avoid hitting or hurting manatees.
• Slow down and follow posted speed zones when operating boats or personal watercraft. Manatees move too slowly to get out of the way. “Slow speed” means a boat should be off plane with a minimum wake. “Idle speed” means a boat should be level with no wake.
(The speed zones also apply to personal watercraft because while they may not have propellers, imagine getting hit in the head by a Jet Ski. A manatee could be knocked unconscious and drown or die of head trauma).
• Wear polarized sunglasses to help you spot manatees underwater.
• Watch for circular wave patterns on the water’s surface made by a manatee’s tail.
• Don’t pass directly over a manatee; it may be coming up for air.
• Don’t feed them or give them water. They’ll get used to people, and not all people are well intentioned.
• Don’t chase, hold, herd, grab or ride manatees.
• Don’t separate an individual from a group, or a calf from a mother.
• Don’t discard fishing line, gear or plastic bags in the water.
Call for help
Call 888-404-FWCC (3922), or *FWC or #FWC on a cell phone, text Tip@MyFWC.com or use VHF Channel 16 on a marine radio:
• If you see boaters speeding in a manatee zone.
• If you see anyone harassing a manatee, such as riding on its back or disturbing a group of mating manatees.
• If you see a manatee with a pink or red (fresh) wound.
• If you see a manatee tilting to one side, unable to submerge or having trouble breathing.
• If you observe a manatee calf by itself with no adults around for an extended period of time.
• If you see a manatee entangled in monofilament, crab trap lines or other debris (do not attempt to remove debris by yourself; it may be embedded in the skin and require a veterinarian).
• If you see a dead manatee.
Free and cheap gear
Boaters and kayakers can request a free “Please Slow: Manatees Below” waterproof banner to hold up to alert oblivious boaters to the presence of manatees, and Florida shoreline property owners can request a free aluminum dock sign that says: “Please Watch for Manatees: Operate with Care.” Boating decals and waterproof cards containing safe boating information also are available, all from the Save the Manatee Club. E-mail email@example.com, write 500 N. Maitland Ave., Maitland, FL 32751 or call toll free 800-432-JOIN (5646).
For a free online boater’s guide to living with Florida manatees, visit www.MyFWC.com/Wildlife.
Florida residents can help manatees by purchasing manatee specialty license plates, available at county tax collectors’ offices. The funds collected for the plates go directly to manatee research and conservation. For a $5 donation, you can get a decal celebrating 500 years of Florida history when you register your boat or vehicle. Donations support manatee research, rehabilitation and educational programs.
Save the manatees now, or someday, the only manatee anyone will ever see will be one born in captivity, like the Parker Aquarium’s most famous resident, Snooty.
But at least it won’t have prop scars.