By Larry Hobbs

November 26, 2019

A manatee mother and her calf spent a dangerously chilly weekend stranded in a water hazard at Sea Palms on St. Simons Island, but the pair were hopefully on the road to recovery Tuesday morning after a coordinated rescue effort orchestrated by a cadre of wildlife experts.

The two were fished out of the pond on the Sea Palms golf course’s 17th hole after being encircled in a net Tuesday morning and hoisted ashore, an effort that took the muscle power of more than a dozen men and women. Those hands included wildlife experts from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Sea World.

The mother and calf were being taken first to the Jacksonville Zoo for observation and treatment, said Terri Callison of U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The ultimate goal is to release the pair back into the wild, most likely somewhere farther south along Florida’s east coast, she said.

“We got the mother and calf out pretty easy,” Callison said shortly before 9 a.m. Tuesday, standing on manicured grass overlooking the pond where the two were stuck. “A vet’s with the animals now and they’ll probably stay at the Jacksonville Zoo. The goal is to introduce them back into the wild, but were probably looking at some kind of rehabilitation before they are ready.”

The mother and calf swam through a culvert from the wild estuary bordering Sea Palms to reach a larger water hazard, probably sometime Friday, said Mark Dodd, a state DNR wildlife biologist. The two were likely seeking warmer waters, he said. The estuary was about 15 degrees Celsius while the water hazard temperatures were around 17 degrees Celsius, which is a significant temperature change in such situations, Dodd said.

“It was just warm enough to induce them to seek these waters,” he said.

The two were originally in the larger water hazard, which was connected by the culvert directly to the estuary, Dodd said. Incredibly, mother and daughter manatee squeezed their way through a drainage pipe about 15 feet long that connected the larger water body with the smaller pond on the 17th hole, Dodd said. The mother weighed between 700 and a 1,000 pounds, Callison said. The female calf was about 4 feet long, she said.

The two then flopped through a shallow ditch into the smaller pond.

“It was a pretty huge animal that came through there,” Dodd said, standing over a ditch and pointing down to a pipe that no Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman would dare attempt to squeeze through. 

DNR agents responded to a call about the stranded manatees on Saturday, but could not locate them, Dodd said. They returned Monday.

“Yesterday we came out here and we saw them this time,” Dodd said. “We were like, ‘Oh, no. We’ve got manatees stuck in here.’”

The cold late fall water temperatures can be deadly for manatees, which instinctively migrate to warmer waters this time of year. Below 15 degrees Celsius gets very dangerous for manatees.

Warming water runoff from a sugar mill and a pulp mill up in Savannah’s estuary often tempt manatees to remain in northerly waters beyond migration times, he said. He suspects that is what happened to these two.

“They can get attached to the warm water and sometimes stay longer than they should,” Dodd said.

Dodd made a call to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and Callison took the task of recruiting and organizing the rescue party from there. “We pulled this together in 24 hours,” she said. “It was an absolutely total team effort.”

With experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, state DNR, Florida fish and wildlife commission and the Sea World folks assembled, they laid out a coordinated plan to catch and rescue to the manatees. They first stretched a net from the shore across to a homeowner’s waterfront bulkhead at the narrowest location on the pond.

Men and women in a johnboat, kayaks, or in the water in wetsuits then stretched another net wide across the water farther down. Circling around with the net’s far end in the water, they enclosed the mother a calf in the net.

“It might look like a simple operation, but being in those nets can be dangerous,” Dodd said. “There’s a lot that goes into it.”

With only the muscle of about 15 men and women wildlife officials, they then hoisted the two manatees ashore. They were lifted via stretcher to an awaiting vehicle outfitted to tend to their needs and hydration for the trip to Jacksonville.

The two manatees were the 67th and 68th rescued and taken into captivity this year, Callison said. Ultimately, they hope all are reintroduced to the wild. The calf is about a year old; it is significant that the adult is a breeding calf, she said.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we can get them healed up as soon as possible,” Callison said. “The goal is to get them healthy enough that they can return and contribute to the wild population.”

This article was originally posted by the Brunswick News online. Click here for original post.

Photo provided by Sea Palms Resort.