Manatee returns 'home'

October 08, 1994|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Sun Staff Writer

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. -- The manatee plucked last week from the chilly Chesapeake Bay swam to freedom yesterday in the warmer, more hospitable Banana River in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near the space shuttle launch site.

The manatee, dubbed "Chessie," met another at the gate to its chain-linked holding pen when it was opened about 12:15 p.m., and the two swam away together.

"My eyes are tearing up," said James Valade, after he helped 13 others carry the animal in a stretcher about 20 feet from a Sea World truck to the holding pen.

The manatee had been "up there [in the Chesapeake Bay] so long by itself," but now he is "among friends," he said.

Mr. Valade, assistant manatee coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, spent 13 days in Maryland managing the rescue operation, a joint project of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Sea World of Florida.

The manatee was captured last Saturday near the mouth of Queenstown Creek on the Eastern Shore and was kept at the National Aquarium in Baltimore until it was shipped to Florida Wednesday.

Only about 1,850 endangered manatees are believed to survive in the United States. Most live in Florida, but during the summer they migrate as far north as Virginia.

Chessie was unlikely to make it back to Florida before the water temperatures in the bay dropped low enough to kill it. Manatees cannot survive long in waters below 66 degrees.

Dr. Terry Campbell, staff veterinarian at Sea World, said yesterday that Chessie "looks perfectly normal."

The manatee lost some some weight after his capture, Dr. Campbell said, but it was impossible to say exactly how much because of discrepancies among the scales used in Baltimore and Florida.

Some of the weight loss may be because the manatee did not eat much while it was in captivity, he said.

Chessie's back has at least 22 scars from several earlier collisions with boats, Mr. Valade said, including a series of eight gashes made by a propeller and longer scars from other accidents.

Scientists use the scar patterns to identify individual manatees. Researchers had hoped to be able to identify Chessie and locate his home waters, but they could not find a match. They decided to release him at Merritt Island because manatee holding pens already are in place there and because the refuge is on the space center grounds, where boat traffic is restricted.

At least 100 manatees are thought to be in the immediate area, said Robert Bonde, a biological technician with the National Biological Survey's Sirenia Project in Gainesville, Fla.

"It's a kind of a Grand Central station for manatees, if you will," Mr. Valade said.

Chessie was flown to Orlando, Fla., on a U.S. Coast Guard C-130.

At Sea World, the Coast Guard crew posed for photographs with their cargo as dolphins in a nearby tank showered the rescue team with water. A crane then hoisted Chessie into a shallow tank he would share for two days with Fathom, a female manatee rescued three years earlier after a collision with a boat.

Dr. Campbell said Chessie developed a romantic interest in Fathom.

"It might have been a while since he'd seen a female manatee," he explained.

Scientists don't know how Chessie made it to Maryland waters. Though manatees, which travel in groups, occasionally venture north in the summer, they usually head south after the first cool evenings of fall, said Dr. Brent Whitaker, director of animal health at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

"It could be the rest of the group traveled south. . . . He was busy."

It also is possible Chessie was part of a mating herd following a female north, said Patti Thompson, staff biologist with the Save the Manatee Club. "Maybe she was trying to shake them loose."

"He may have just zigged when he should have zagged," said Mr. Bonde, who estimated Chessie's more than 900-mile trip to the bay would have taken the animal 18 to 20 days of "pretty heavy-duty swimming."

Before his release, Chessie was fitted with three radio transmitters, which are housed in a small buoy attached to a belt around the base of his tail, so scientists can track him. The belt is designed to break away if it gets snagged on anything, Mr. Bonde said.

The data will help researchers learn more about manatee habits, such as the paths they follow during their seasonal travels.

"The books on manatee biology are just being written," Mr. Bonde said. "There's so much to learn about these guys."

Chessie already has raised questions. Mr. Bonde said researchers were "shocked" to discover that they were dealing with a full-grown male. Immature males are more likely than mature ones to wander off and get lost, he said.

Mr. Valade said he was impressed with Chessie's craftiness in avoiding his would-be captors. "Its reflexes were uncanny," he said.

Chessie once slipped through a net that was snagged on a pylon. The next time he was netted, he headed for some pylons to see if he could escape there, Mr. Valade said. Unsuccessful, Chessie tried his luck at 12 different points along the net. He swam into a boathouse apparently looking for an escape route, and once he attempted to get away by "walking" around the net on his flippers through shallow water.

Now, scientists want to keep track of Chessie to see if he heads north again.

"It will be interesting to see what he does next spring," said Dr. Campbell.

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