Once again, slippery manatee is the one that got away Sea cow noses its way under marine team's nets

September 29, 1994|By Katherine Richards and David Michael Ettlin | Katherine Richards and David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writers

The Chesapeake Bay manatee appeared cornered last night in a shallow cove along Little Queenstown Creek as a team of marine mammal rescuers tried to end a nearly weeklong game of hide-and-seek.

But appearances proved as deceiving as the creature.

As dozens of spectators -- many of them children -- watched from the shoreline at sundown and swimmers tried to close in with a net, the manatee got away again.

"He must have nosed his way underneath the lead line," said John Gill, an official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's been a long day."

"This is getting as bad as 'The Young and the Restless,' " said one of the spectators, Judy Wenck of Queenstown.

"It feels like a soap opera because we've been out since Saturday seeing this."

The meandering manatee -- an endangered warm-water species -- is believed to be the first seen in Maryland waters, although sightings reported in widely separated locations prompted speculation by scientists that there may be more than one.

Manatees are found chiefly in Florida's coastal waterways, and are estimated to number only about 1,850 -- their population dwindling as the human population and boating traffic there has boomed. The propeller blades of boats have taken a big toll.

Yesterday's capture attempts began with helicopter flights in the area near the mouth of the Chester River as observers tried to find and track the manatee from the air.

In late afternoon, the effort moved to the water with at least four boats following the estimated 1,500-pound animal with a net as it swam at least twice back and forth between Queenstown harbor and the cove several hundred yards away.

At one point, with the team nearly closing off the cove and very slowly, patiently, following the manatee, it seemed to catch on to the strategy and suddenly appeared on the wrong side of the team.

The boats followed as it swam toward the harbor, near the sewage treatment plant where it has found an abundant supply of munchies -- submerged aquatic vegetation.

Some spectators tried to help, pointing out the manatee from their vantage points on two harbor piers.

"There he is, right there to your right," one man called out to a boat crew and Sea World manatee specialist Steve Lehr, swimming nearby.

Mr. Lehr at times tried to splash water with his hands to herd the sea cow toward the U-shaped cove, where the team planned to trap it by running a net across the entrance and then close in gradually.

At the 7 p.m. sunset, it appeared that the team -- with participants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Maryland Natural Resources Police, the National Aquarium and Sea World of Orlando -- was succeeding.

With 15 people wading with the net across the entrance, tightening the loop and moving slowly across the cover, the manatee seemed trapped in shallow water.

A tow truck from Bob's Automotive of Queenstown moved in, apparently to haul out the animal on a sling, and the town's volunteer fire department heavy rescue squad truck arrived with floodlights as darkness deepened.

The crowd of spectators got about as close as possible to the action, on the shoreline of a private golf course, waiting for the finale.

"That thing is slick," said Sue Whaley, a Queenstown resident watching from a fishing boat.

Indeed it was. So slick that it got away.

It was uncertain last night how soon another capture attempt would be made.

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