Elusive bay manatee slips through rescuers' nets

September 27, 1994|By Katherine Richards and David Michael Ettlin | Katherine Richards and David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writers

An endangered and apparently wayward manatee, which is increasingly at risk of death in the cooling waters of Maryland's Eastern Shore, eluded the nets of wildlife experts yesterday in Queenstown Creek.

"They were out there trying to observe what it was doing," said Kathi Bangert, assistant supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Chesapeake field office. "They tried to get the net around it a couple of times, but it got away. It slipped away.

BTC "But this is not an unusual situation at all. This is a very large animal. They are very wily, very agile, very maneuverable."

The close encounter was witnessed by area residents, one of whom felt there was a "Free Willy" atmosphere to the events -- a reference to the movie about a boy helping to free a captive killer whale.

In this case, however, the goal is capturing a marine mammal -- a "sea cow" more at home in warm southern waters. The species is not known to have turned up before this summer above the Potomac, but a manatee -- most likely the Queenstown Creek critter -- has been sighted in Maryland waters since midsummer.

It is believed to be at risk if exposed for a few days to temperatures below 68 degrees.

Ms. Bangert said water temperatures around Queenstown Creek ranged yesterday from 68 to 71 degrees.

Residents said the manatee was nearly captured about 11 a.m. but slipped around divers and their net as a marine mammal stranding team waited at a nearby dock.

They reported that it eluded the would-be rescuers a second time before swimming from Queenstown Creek into more open waters at the mouth of the Chester River.

Officials searched for the animal using several boats and a helicopter before giving up for the day about 4:30 p.m.

"He played right around the end of the pier," said Helen Bartholomew, a Queenstown resident. She pointed to a spot off a dock on Queenstown Creek and said, "They almost had it right here. . . . I guess he got afraid, and kind of backed up and went around the boats."

She said the animal looks like an alligator when he surfaces for air. "He is beautiful. . . . If I didn't have to work, I'd sit out here all night waiting for him."

Sue Whaley, another Queenstown resident, said, "The whole atmosphere here is, 'Free Willy.' Everyone is clinging to the hope that they can get this thing in" and save its life.

"He looked very prehistoric," she said. She guessed the animal might have come into Queenstown Creek because "the sewage plant is there, and it's warmer."

Resident Linda Bartholomew said, "It's pretty fast. . . . They should let some of the watermen go out there and try to help them."

Rescue team members would not discuss the events with a reporter at the scene, referring inquiries to official representatives, like Ms. Bangert.

But while officials hurried to empty gear from boats as a thunderstorm approached, one, apparently referring to the string unsuccessful capture attempts, said under his breath, "Manatees 3, Humans Nothing."

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