State releases manatee into Lemon Bay
By STEVE REILLY
ENGLEWOOD — Thanks to two Venice residents, a 3-year-old male manatee isback home in Ainger Creek.
On March 4, Tom Williams and Charles Martin thought they’d spend a day fishing on Lemon Bay. But whenthey got south of the Tom Adams Bridge, they spotted the manatee stranded on a sandbar.
Martin, who volunteers with the Wildlife Centerof Venice, knew that the manatee looked “toxic.”
They gave up any fishing and stayed with the manatee for more than three hours, waiting for and assisting a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission team with the rescue.
“The manatee was ready (to die) in a week’s time,” said Denise Boyd, research associate with the FWC. “He was very sick. He was significantly paralyzed from having major body seizures. It was completely beached and unresponsive.”
The toxic red tide algae —Karenia brevis— caused the manatee’s health problems. High counts of red tide had been plaguing Lemon Bay and other local waters for months.
The manatee, which is 7 feet long and weighs over 400 pounds, was taken to SeaWorld in Orlando to recuperate. SeaWorld staff dubbed the manatee Rojo, which is Spanish for “red.”
When the manatee arrived in Orlando, it wasminimally responsive, said SeaWorld veterinarian Stacy DiRocco. SeaWorld treats 20 to 30 sick or injured manatees annually.
“For the first night, we didn’t put it in water,” DiRocco said. “We wanted to make sure it was strong enough to support itself (in the water). We did a 24-hour watch on him. We didn’t see any seizures.”
The next day, the manatee was placed in a shallow pool usually reserved for orphaned manatee calves. Within the first two days, Rojo could swim on its own in a pool with deeper water.
The manatee could have returned to Lemon Bay sooner, but FWC officials wanted to wait until the red tide counts in Lemon Bay subsided, Boyd said. Researchers like to return manatees to familiar waters.
“Some (manatees) have a strong ‘site fidelity,’ which means they have learned the area for fresh water, food and warm waters,” she said. “That’s learned behavior, so you want to put them back where they’vefound those resources.”
Williams and Martin helped FWC and Sea World’s team carry the manatee on a stretcher down to the Ainger Creek boat ramp, just off Placida Road in Englewood.
The release went smoothly, as a dozen employeesfrom SeaWorld andthe state lifted him from a box truck on a specially designed stretcher. After a few minutes on a soft pad near the ramp, they lifted him again, and walked him to the end of the ramp.
Once in the water, Rojo quickly swam off toward the Ainger Creek channel and Lemon Bay beyond.
“We did the right thing, I guess,” Williams said. “We saved a life.”
The FWC and SeaWorld’s work wasn’t done. They released a second manatee Wednesday in Lee County. The Lee County manatee healed at SeaWorld from a collapsed lung, four fractured ribs and other injuries it sustained from a boat strike.
Venice residents Tom Williams and Charles Martin sit with the 410-pound manatee that they help save. On March 4, while planning to fish in Lemon Bay, they spotted the young male sick and stranded on a sandbar south of the Tom Adams Bridge.
SUN PHOTO BY STEVE REILLY