By Wednesday, six days after someone first spotted the stranded sea cows, officials with the city of Daytona Beach and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) had decided to launch a rescue mission. As spectators watched from lawn chairs and a TV news helicopter hovered over the city-owned Halifax Harbor Marina, a barge carrying a crane sidled up beside the barrier. Workers in safety vests spent hours removing a portion of the wall to give the manatees a way out. Late in the afternoon, FWC announced the two had swum to freedom.
“If they were two adult manatees, you could have up to a couple weeks,” said aquatic biologist Patrick Rose, who serves as executive director of the nonprofit group Save the Manatee Club and watched the effort via a TV news live stream. “But with the calf, every day is important to get her back out and, of course, make sure that they stay together.”
Florida’s manatee population, once down to the hundreds, has rebounded over the past four decades — so much so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2017 downgraded the West Indian manatee from endangered to threatened. But conservationists and scientists including Rose criticized the move, saying the problems facing the state’s estimated 6,300 manatees still remain, including algae blooms and scrapes with boats.
The Sunshine State employs five manatee rescue coordinators who spring into action when the beloved animals find themselves in trouble. Rescuers are on high alert when hurricanes and other types of weather bring higher-than-normal water levels, which often lead to manatees ending up in places they wouldn’t typically be.
“When the water returns to normal levels, they can be trapped in there,” FWC spokeswoman Michelle Kerr said. “And it’s really important for members of the public to keep an eye out for any unusual situations like this.”
The manatee and her calf, which Rose estimated to be around 3 months old, were reported to FWC last Thursday. Authorities considered how to best free the two — a task that Kerr said was complicated by “steep slopes, major depth and dangerous conditions for both the human rescue team and the manatees."
Catching and manually lifting the manatees out of the cove would have been stressful to the animals and difficult for the humans because the mother weighs more than 1,000 pounds, according to the News-Journal. Removing part of the barrier wasn’t exactly easy, either, the newspaper reported: The support piles extend more than 26 feet below the riverbed.
As authorities weighed the best course of action, locals watched the animals struggle to get out on their own. Janet Lynn, who lives in an apartment building near the marina, told the News-Journal she had seen the mother attempt to overcome the wall.
“She just fell in the water after trying too hard,” she said. “That baby was right next to her.”
On Wednesday, the paper reported, a few hundred people watched the rescue attempt unfold. By midafternoon, the opening had been made, and rescuers were waiting to see whether the manatees would swim through it to freedom. No one saw their great escape, FWC marine mammal biologist Nadia Gordon said. But the rescuers waited 40 minutes to see if the mammals surfaced. When no manatee noses appeared, they grew confident the duo were free.
“We’re excited the manatees were able to swim out to freedom,” she said.
FWC biologists who assessed the animals this week determined that they were healthy and appear to have been eating, Kerr said. They are expected to be just fine. Still, the pair’s plight seemed to strike a chord.
“What endeared them so much to me is they’re an animal I just don’t see [having] any capability of being aggressive in any way,” Rose said. “They do well if left alone. Oftentimes those things that man has built and done create what has become traps for them. That’s kind of what happened here.”