A manatee mother and her calf spent a dangerously chilly weekend stranded in a water hazard at Sea Palms on St. Simons Island, which proved to be too much for the yearling who died in route to the Jacksonville Zoo, said Jason Lee, wildlife program manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.
The mother manatee continued on to Sea World in Orlando, Fla., following the coordinated rescue effort orchestrated by a cadre of wildlife experts. News of the calf’s death came via email from Lee at 4:43 p.m.
The two were fished out of the chilly pond on the Sea Palms golf course’s 17th hole after being encircled in a vast 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, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Sea World in Orlando.
The mother was taken first to the Jacksonville Zoo for observation and treatment, said Terri Calleson 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,” Calleson 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 we’re 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 during inordinately high seasonal king tides, said Mark Dodd, a state DNR wildlife biologist. The two were likely seeking warmer waters, he said. The estuary was about 15 degrees Celsius (59 Fahrenheit) while the water hazard’s temperatures were around 17 degrees Celsius (62.6 Fahrenheit), 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 directly to the estuary by a large culvert, Dodd said. Incredibly, mother and daughter manatee squeezed their way from there through a drainage pipe about 15 feet long that connected with the smaller pond on the 17th hole, Dodd said. The mother weighed between 700 and a 1,000 pounds, Calleson said. The female calf was about 4 feet long, she said.
The two then flopped through a shallow ditch from there 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 Calleson 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.”
Calleson also praised the Sea Palms residents who spotted the manatees and realized they were in danger.
With experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, state DNR, Florida fish and wildlife commission, Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the Sea World folks assembled, they laid out a coordinated plan to catch and rescue to the manatees.
“Immediately after looking at the water temps here, I knew we were in a critical situation,” Calleson said, hours before news of the calf’s death.
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, some kayaks, or directly 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 and 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 mother manatee was the 67th rescued and taken into captivity this year, Calleson said. Ultimately, they hope all these manatees are reintroduced to the wild. Calleson estimated the calf was about a year old. It is significant that the adult manatee is a breeding cow, 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.”
While most manatees in the U.S. reside in Florida waters, several dozen typically venture into Georgia coastal waters during the warm summer months, Dodd said. Anywhere from 40 to 60 manatees usually find refuge along our coast, most of them below Brunswick. The Dungeness Dock on Cumberland Island is a popular summertime hangout for these gentle sea cows, as they are affectionately known.
By now, all manatees should have long migrated to warmer waters south of here in Florida, he said.
Folks who spot manatees in danger, or any other wildlife problems, can contact DNR at 800-272-8363 (2SaveMe).