Experts may rescue bay's wandering manatee

September 24, 1994|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

A team of wildlife specialists set out yesterday to track down a misguided manatee, perhaps the first spotted north of the Potomac River, that has been swimming around the upper Chesapeake Bay for at least seven weeks.

An effort to capture and return the docile animal to its warm Florida home could come as early as today, a federal official said.

Wildlife specialists are concerned that recent heavy rains may have lowered the Chesapeake's water temperature to the point where it threatens the manatee's health.

Today is also opening day of striped bass season, which will increase powerboat traffic. Collisions with boats and propeller blades are a major cause of death to these endangered mammals, which live and feed in shallow waters. Just 1,856 of the creatures were counted in a 1992 census.

Last spotted Wednesday in Queenstown Creek, near Queenstown on the Chester River, the errant manatee has been seen munching bay grasses along Eastern Shore rivers. It is estimated to be 7 to 9 feet long and to weigh up to 1,500 pounds.

A team including manatee specialists from the wildlife service, the National Aquarium in Baltimore and Sea World in Florida launched a search by boat yesterday afternoon. Kathy Bangert, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Chesapeake Bay office, said a Department of Natural Resources plane is helping in the search, which was to resume today.

David Schofield, marine animal rescue coordinator for the aquarium, said yesterday morning that no decision had been made about whether to attempt a rescue.

"The goal is to get the manatee to swim out of the bay on its own," he said. "The last thing we want to do is grab an animal that's healthy" and risk injuring it.

But Ms. Bangert said late yesterday afternoon that the team may try to rescue and relocate the animal. She urged anyone who sees the manatee to call either (410) 573-4569 or (800) 628-9944.

Manatees have been spotted as far north as Virginia and as far west as Louisiana in warm weather. But they can't tolerate cold, and they must return to rivers heated by hot springs in peninsular Florida to survive the winter.

At least one manatee has been spotted in the Chesapeake's Virginia waters each year for the past five years. One was seen in the Potomac in 1988.

"There's been a lot of interest in those that show up in the Chesapeake Bay," said Thomas Pitchford, a biologist and manatee expert with the state of Florida. "We don't know if the ones that show up there make it back. There's an assumption that they don't."

Mr. Pitchford, who has been tracking reports of this summer's Chesapeake manatee, said a possible sighting occurred July 30, when a manatee was reported swimming in the Susquehanna River. Several people reported seeing a manatee at the Georgetown Yacht Basin, on the Sassafras River, on Aug. 8. A manatee was also sighted in the Chester River Labor Day weekend.

Connie Graham of the Florida-based Save the Manatee Club said she fears the manatee in the bay is in jeopardy. "Manatees will die from cold stress if in waters of 68 degrees or below for two to three days," she said, noting that bay waters were 68 degrees yesterday morning.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.