Sunday, November 01, 2009

Manatee Rescue...

On Tuesday, October 26, 2009, the Dive Team received a unique request for services, at least in New Jersey. The Marine Mammal Stranding Center, headquartered in Brigantine, NJ, needed dry suit divers to assist in the safe capture of a wayward manatee. This specimen, named Ilya, is suspected to be the same one that has been traveling from Florida up the Eastern seaboard in the summers for almost a decade. However, the local waters have dropped below 60 degrees F, so MMSC feared that he would soon succumb to hypothermia. He had been spotted intermittently the last two weeks around Staten Island and Essex and Hudson Counties.

Last weekend, he moved into a tidal creek by the Conoco Phillips oil refinery in Linden, probably because of a warm water outfall pipe from the facility. We met with the staff of the MMSC, got checked through Security, and were escorted into the refinery property. Conoco Phillips dedicated numerous resources to the efforts for the day, including a staging tent, food, drinks, safety and rescue crews, two boats, and a crane. Everyone involved had a safety briefing and the capture plan was outlined. A representative from Florida Fish & Wildlife and veterinarian from the Miami Seaquarium had traveled up to provide their extensive expertise with manatee capture and subsequent care.

It didn’t take too long to locate Ilya in the creek, as the refinery staff had been feeding him the last few days. Although the creek was warm, there is little in it in the way of acceptable food for a manatee, so he approached us readily to accept lettuce. However, once he was lured down the creek and a long net was deployed by boat in a large circular corral around him, he dove. Two divers were in the creek to keep freeing the net from underwater snags, but the manatee managed to find his way out. He wasn’t so stressed by the experience that he didn’t just go back to eating lettuce between our attempts.

The plan was reevaluated and the decision was made to move the capture site down the creek past another bridge in hopes that a smoother bottom would allow for a better deployment of the net and prevent another escape. Our divers formed a surface line and splashed our way downstream to chase the manatee towards the new net location. The plan worked this time, as we could see him testing the net but not find a way out under the bottom. Under the direction of the experts, we helped draw the net in and “bag it up”, this time with a manatee still in it.

Almost 20 people were needed to haul the animal on shore and restrain it on its stomach (a manatee’s tail slap is incredibly powerful if it can roll onto its back). The veterinarian administered a sedative to enable a safer transfer of the animal onto a stretcher and cargo netting, at which point the crane moved it over to a pad by the staging area for proper medical evaluation. It was then loaded in the MMSC truck, and we followed their staff to the Brigantine facility to assist with one more manual lift of the manatee into a heated rehab pool. After a few slow laps, Ilya went right back to eating lettuce (a healthy manatee normally eats 100 pounds of vegetation every day).

He would stay in the care of the Brigantine facility for two days until he could be flown back to Florida on a Coast Guard C-130. Once there, the Miami Seaquarium will evaluate his health and consider release options.

This successful rescue could not have happened without dozens of volunteers and donated resources. Many thanks go to the MMSC for inviting us to participate in this unique experience.

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