Finally! Wily manatee is rescued from bay

October 02, 1994|By Amy L. Miller and Katherine Richards | Amy L. Miller and Katherine Richards,Sun Staff Writers

It's a boy, rescuers of Maryland's meandering manatee announced yesterday after, at last, capturing the animal near the mouth of Queenstown Creek on the Eastern Shore.

Wildlife specialists caught the gentle, wily giant after 6 1/2 hours of diligent work in the water that began about 8:30 a.m. and ended with the mature male manatee being trucked to the National Aquarium in Baltimore -- and ultimately, they hope, back to Florida.

The drive to Baltimore was done with the manatee swaddled in foam rubber in a Marine Animal Rescue Program truck, with an escort of state Natural Resources Police. Arriving in Baltimore at 4:15 p.m., the animal spent the night back in the water -- in an aquarium tank.

The rescue capped eight frustrating, fascinating days of trying to save the creature from Chesapeake Bay-area water temperatures that are sagging toward 66 degrees, which would have spelled possibly fatal trouble for the endangered animal.

The specialists -- from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Sea World of Florida, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore -- were helped by spectators lining the shore of Queenstown Creek, off the Chester River in Queen Anne's County.

"All indications are that the animal's doing real well," said James A. Valade, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from Jacksonville, Fla., who led the rescue operation.

After the truck ride to Baltimore, that evaluation was sustained by National Aquarium veterinarian Brent Whitaker, who concluded: "He's very comfortable. His respiration's normal, and looks good."

After nearly an hour of routine blood tests, stool samples and measurement, volunteers rolled the manatee into the aquarium's foot hospital tank. A loud cheer went up as he slowly swam through the tank.

The animal will be monitored at the National Aquarium for about 24 hours. If he is healthy, tentative plans are to fly him to Florida, where he will again be observed before being released.

"Conceivably, by Tuesday or Wednesday this animal could be in the water in Florida, where it ought to be," Mr. Valade said.

Rescuers noted that the manatee had scars from past collisions with boats. Scar patterns are used by researchers to identify individual manatees, and if this one can be identified by the scars on his back, it may be possible to release him in the place from which he started, Mr. Valade said.

He said the 10-foot-2-inch long manatee, estimated to weigh more than 1,500 pounds, was "one of the biggest [males] we've ever seen." Male manatees mature at about age 7 and can live to be 55, he said. This one is between 30 and 50.

Aquarium volunteers said the manatee was the heaviest animal to enter the aquarium. The aquarium's beluga whales were longer, but not as heavy, said Vicki Aversa, the aquarium's spokeswoman.

Mr. Valade said Friday it was possible -- but unlikely -- that more than one manatee has been seen in the bay area. Despite other reported sightings, he said confirmation had been made of only this animal.

The manatee was sighted about 8:30 a.m. yesterday, feeding peacefully on grasses about 20 feet off a public dock in Queenstown Harbor. The rescue team and a DNR helicopter that was used to track the animal were summoned.

By about 10 a.m., the channel of Little Queenstown Creek was closed off with approximately 400 feet of fishing net.

Watermen coming in from the morning's crabbing, barred from bringing their catch to port, gathered on shore to watch.

Several times, the manatee swam toward the creek's headwaters, then circled back toward the net. Each time that the animal circled back to the net to prod and test it, volunteers in wet suits stationed at intervals along the net splashed with their arms to drive him back.

By noon, the team had the manatee encircled in waist-deep water. A crowd watched from front yards along Queenstown Creek's shore.

The endgame took place in knee-deep water in front of a waterfront home owned by Evelyn White Jones, 75. She sat on a lawn chair watching what she said was a "once-in-a-lifetime" spectacle, as more than 100 people gathered on her lawn to watch officials land the manatee.

"We sit out here and watch the fireworks that the golf course put on," she said, "but never a manatee."

When about 20 rescuers lifted the animal in a fishing-net fold, he thrashed his powerful, rounded tail, showering them with mud and slime.

Some delay ensued as the experts tried to determine the safest way to move the animal up a steep, rocky slope and into the waiting truck. Eventually, a tow truck backed a trailer almost into the water. The manatee, swathed in netting, was cushioned with foam pads before being winched onto the trailer.

From there, the animal was rolled onto a sling. He lay quietly with his eyes closed as humans patted him, sprayed him with water and monitored his breathing.

"It's just so exciting," said a grinning Chris Gill of Preston, a volunteer who spent two days on the rescue effort. "It kind of . . . brings tears to your eyes when you see it finally happening."

When the tow truck hoisted the sling toward the rescue truck, chains slipped and spectators gasped, but the animal seemed unfazed. About 20 volunteers and onlookers hefted and slid the manatee the last few inches, and the crowd cheered as he came to rest on a bed of foam inside the truck about 2:45 p.m.

David Schofield, coordinator of the Marine Animal Rescue Program at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, shouted from the back of the truck: "Thanks, everybody from Queenstown!"

The crowd cheered and applauded.

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