What it Takes to Rescue Two Tons of Manatee

What it Takes to Rescue Two Tons of Manatee

A Sea World vet checks the health of a male manatee rescued from the cold waters of the Cooper River. (Photo: Sea World of Orlando)

To rescue a half-ton animal, you’re going to need an equally large team effort. To rescue five of them, you’re gonna need a bigger boat.

One female and four male manatees were recently captured in the Cooper River, where water temperatures had become dangerously cold. The animals were successfully rescued and relocated to Florida by a team of partners from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Sea World of Orlando, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), KapStone Charleston Kraft LLC, and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

As coastal waters warm each spring, a small number of manatees migrate north from Florida to spend summers in states including South Carolina. In fall, the animals return to Florida. When water temperatures drop below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, the mammals become susceptible to cold stress, a condition similar to hypothermia in humans, which can lead to death.

On rare occasions, manatees will fail to migrate south if they find a source of warm water such as an outfall. There are a number of warm-water outfalls along the Cooper River, and 2015 marked South Carolina’s first winter manatee rescue in recent memory, when a team captured and transported one mature male (dubbed “Goose”) to a Sea World facility for rehabilitation and eventual release.

Manatees are difficult to spot in the Lowcountry's murky waters, where they're primarily spotted when they briefly surface every few minutes to breathe. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)

In November 2016, staff at the KapStone paper mill reported to SCDNR that multiple manatees were resting and foraging near a warm-water outfall site at their plant along the Cooper River. SCDNR and KapStone staff monitored the animals for a little over two weeks to see if the animals would leave the area as surrounding water temperatures dropped. When it became clear that the manatees were not going to migrate south of their own volition, staff from the USFWS, which oversees the management of the Florida manatee as an endangered species, began assembling a response team. Sea World and USFWS generously sent up boats, rescue vans, and expert staff from Florida to assist with the Charleston rescue operation, and KapStone kindly donated the use of a crane to safely transport the animals from boat to rescue van.

On December 8, the team captured two manatees – one of whom had a familiar scar pattern. The large male was identified as Goose, whose whereabouts had been unknown since he lost his satellite transmitter earlier in the fall.

The rescue team loads one of the manatees in a stretcher onto a USFWS landing craft. (Photo: Sea World of Orlando)

The manatees were craned from the rescue vessels onto a wharf at Kapstone paper mill before being given a health check. (Photo: Sea World of Orlando)

The following day, the team successfully captured two additional large male manatees. A fifth animal with distinctive scarring had disappeared from the site and eluded capture – but within days, the animal returned to KapStone, prompting a second rescue effort.

On December 21, the fifth animal was rescued and relocated. A sixth animal was believed to be in the area, but no additional sightings have been reported since then.

All five animals were still in decent health, showing signs that they’d been able to find food. Several of the animals had scarring from previous run-ins with boats, which is one of the leading causes of death for manatees. The male manatees ranged from 1,000-1,100 pounds and 9-10 feet in length, while the female was smaller. Accompanied by Sea World veterinarians, the animals were transported by van to the central coast of Florida with the additional help of the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens and the Brevard Zoo, where they were all released into the warm waters of a popular manatee wintering ground.

Two of the animals were fitted with satellite transmitter tags by the Sea to Shore Alliance, who will track the manatees as part of an east coast study of manatee movement and habitat use.

We are grateful to all the partners involved in this rescue effort for their time, dedication, and expertise!

The rescued manatees were all released into waterways near Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Photo: Sea World of Orlando)

You can help SC manatees by reporting any sightings of these animals here. If you spot an injured or dead manatee in South Carolina, call the SCDNR wildlife hotline at 1-800-922-543.

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