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Multiple Manatee Rescues Following Hurricane Idalia

Rescue volunteers and officials pull a giant net across a canal and drag it down the canal to corral entrapped manatees.
Rescuers use a large net to corral and capture an entrapped manatee in Whiskey Creek. Photo courtesy of FWC.

Manatees On The Mend

By Cora Berchem, Director of Multimedia and Manatee Research Associate

Fall is a busy season for all Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP) partners getting rehabilitated manatees ready for releases this winter season. Several manatees are housed in facilities around Florida, while others have spent the last couple of months or years at second-stage facilities such as the Georgia Aquarium, the Cincinnati Zoo and Gardens, or the Columbus Zoo. In early fall, those manatees who have reached a weight of 600 pounds—and are therefore deemed releasable—will be transported back to Florida to spend a few final weeks at a facility here before going back out into their natural habitat. In exchange, smaller manatees who have completed the critical-care stage of their rehabilitation but still need to gain weight will be transported to second-stage care facilities to make room for critical cases in Florida.

When young manatees are released in the wintertime, the goal is to release these “naïve” manatees, which have little to no experience in the wild, into a warm-water refuge at the end of the winter so they can socialize with other manatees and hopefully follow them once the weather warms. There is a lot that a manatee can learn while in rehabilitation, but how to distinguish between warm and cold water or how to migrate to and from a warm-water site is something the animals can only learn from conspecifics (a member of the same species) once they are back in their natural habitat. Those manatees are outfitted with satellite tracking devices so researchers can monitor their movements and adaptation to life in the wild and render aid should the manatee not do well.

A manatee
rescued at Whiskey Creek lays on a tarp, surrounded by rescuers, and receives a health assessment.
One of the manatees rescued from Whiskey Creek receives a health assessment before being released in a safe location. Photo courtesy of FWC.

In addition to prepping multiple manatees for release, our partners were also very busy in the aftermath of Hurricane Idalia as it swept over the Gulf Coast of Florida at the end of August. The area most affected was the Big Bend region of Florida; however, effects were felt all along the Gulf Coast with heavy rainfall and high water levels. Manatees have evolved with hurricanes, so they usually instinctually seek out sheltered areas until the storm passes. However, in some cases, shortly before a hurricane, water levels may recede, leaving manatees high and dry. Most often, the main effects of a hurricane on manatees are felt in the days or weeks after the storm has moved through. Manatees are curious creatures who like to explore, and high water levels oftentimes allow manatees to seek out areas that they usually cannot access. They can also become accidentally swept into areas such as golf course ponds or waterways behind weirs (low-head dams), where they can get trapped once water levels recede.

An entrapped manatee peers over a low rise dam, or weir, but the water level is too low for it to get over to the other side.
A mom and calf pair trapped behind a weir in Cape Coral. Photo courtesy of FWC.

This was the case in several instances this fall where our partners from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), alongside many MRP partners, had to interfere to relocate manatees from behind weirs and other obstacles and release them back into open waterways. Several manatees were rescued from a residential canal system in Whiskey Creek/Fort Myers, and a mom and calf pair was rescued and relocated from a canal in Cape Coral. Another large rescue attempt was made in a large pond in Clam Bayou near St. Petersburg, but the manatees had found their way out of the pond before rescuers could locate them. These rescues are large group efforts with multiple partner organizations involved, helping with spotting the manatees, corralling and capturing them with large nets and rescue boats, giving them a complete health assessment, and then transporting them and releasing them back into open waterways. Citizens play a major role too by reporting entrapped manatees to FWC at 1-888-404-3922.

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