Injured Manatee Rescue - Homosassa River
Word had come in that there was an injured manatee spotted near the Homosassa Springs, and that the next day there was to be a rescue of the injured animal. We had the opportunity to follow Fish and Wildlife and other manatee rescue authorities during the rescue. This is how it went:
There had been talk of a struck manatee on the river for several days - in fact someone reported seeing blood in the water 3 days prior to the day the animal was initially spotted. Injured manatees can be difficult to locate, and the report of an injured animal must be confirmed before the rescue team can be mobilized.
This particular manatee had eluded the search for several days, until it's injury developed an air-bubble in the side of the animal - over a collapsed lung - which caused the manatee to float higher on one side. The animal was spotted by a tour boat early on the morning of the rescue in a canal along a popular manatee gathering area.
We followed the Fish and Wildlife boat to the scene where we saw the grey shape of the injured manatee floating to one side, seemingly unable to dive. Keeping our distance, we watched as the rescuers cautiously approached the injured animal to check on it's condition before attempting the rescue.
Shortly thereafter, the manatee rescue boat sponsored by Hard Rock Cafe and manned with additional rescue personnel, arrived with the net that was to be used in the capture. They quietly encircled the manatee with the net, trying not to startle the hurt animal. When the net was around the manatee, it was drawn in toward the back of the rescue boat, which has a special hatch opened at water level and a forward mounted motor - to allow a wide open area in which to pull the manatee onboard for transport to the dock.
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As you can imagine, a 1,000 pound animal with powerful muscles and a heavy tail can be very challenging to capture. In this particular rescue, the experience and skill of the rescue crew, and the fact that the injured manatee was probably exhausted from the pain, made the rescue fairly quick. The manatee was netted, pulled onto the boat, and heading for the dock area within 5 minutes.
Once back at the dock the extent of the injuries could be easily seen. The manatee had been struck by a boat, resulting in one skeg-mark along it's back and 3 propeller cuts - one of which cut deep through the animals back.
Dr. Lowe started assessing the injuries, dressing the wound, and taking needed blood samples. He determined that the manatee had a collapsed lung, several broken ribs, air in the chest cavity and a gash approximately 5 inches deep and 8 inches long across it's back, dangerously close to it's spinal column.
Dr. Lowe said that the collapsed lung was probably caused by one of the broken ribs, which most likely occurred when the skeg of the boat impacted the manatee - causing a crushing type injury. One cut from the propeller blade was especially deep, and may have accounted for these injuries as well - and looked like it may have affected the spinal column. He said it appeared that the animal had been injured several days before, as the smaller cuts have already started to heal. The internal injuries were of greater concern, however. It was also possible that the manatee had been struck twice - one resulting in the punctured lung and broken ribs, and the next resulting in the propeller cuts when the animal was unable to avoid a second boat due to it's injuries.
The manatee was lifted from the boat and moved into the rescue trailer for transport to a critical care facility - in this case Sea World in Orlando. A special stretcher was used to move the animal, then foam pads and supports were used to position the manatee within the trailer. Once ready, the animal was then taken to Sea World for evaluation and, hopefully, rehabilitation.
I asked about stress on the animal during the trip - Dr. Lowe told me that the animal was in considerable pain from it's injuries, but that it would most likely survive it's trip to Sea World as manatees can survive out of water a considerable length of time.
Over the next few days we learned that the animal had survived the trip to Sea World, that it appeared that the spinal column was intact and the animal still had feeling throughout it's body, and that it had been cared for and fitted with special floats to help it maintain an upright position in the water, until the air in it's chest cavity dissipated naturally.
Call the Wildlife Alert Hotline 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) - or *FWC/#FWC, or use VHF Channel 16 on your marine radio if you see an injured, dead, tagged, or orphaned manatee, or if you see a manatee being harassed.