A major thunderstorm was rumbling in from the east on a Sunday afternoon when the Marine Mammal Rescue team arrived from Port Charlotte to rescue what is estimated to be a one-month-old male manatee calf that had been orphaned by its mother. The calf was under a dock in a canal on the island.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) team were responding to a call from Marco Island Police Officer Josh Ferris, who works in the department’s marine unit.
A team of three young ladies, Biologists Hada Herring and Emily Davidson, along with intern Megan Krzewinski, arrived at the scene just after 1 PM as they quickly and efficiently went into action.
Thanks to the information provided by Ferris, the ladies were equipped with everything they needed to capture the manatee calf that measured 3.8 feet long and weighed just over 50 pounds.
Herring, who has worked with stranded marine mammals for 10 years, led the rescue. She calmly assessed the situation and instructed everyone on the plan.
The rescue was a bit tricky because the manatee calf was swimming around a boat lift, making it difficult to position the big net that was used to catch him.
Within six minutes, the FWC team, with a big assist from Greg Curry from Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and Ferris, was able to coax the calf into the net.
“We got it, we got it!” Herring exclaimed as the net containing one feisty manatee calf was carefully hauled out of the water and onto the dock. The calf was quickly transported to a plastic tub that was strategically placed on the seawall behind the dock for stability. “Hold the metal, hold the metal,” Herring instructed her team, referring to the metal frame of the landing net.
Once in the tub, the calf was stroked and nurtured by Herring and Davidson.
“You’re okay, you’re okay. I know baby,” Herring spoke calmly to the frightened calf. She then addressed the team. “Did you guys see gender?”
“No,” was the reply.
Herring then congratulated the team, “Good job, guys.”
Once the calf was stabilized, the group gathered around the tub and transported the calf to the Marine Mammal Rescue truck. A quick examination of the calf confirmed that it was a male.
By this time, the thunderstorm had arrived in earnest and everyone worked quickly to load the calf into the back of the truck. Soaked to the skin, the ladies then drove the calf safely to ZooTampa.
Reflecting on the rescue, all involved seemed pleased with the way everything unfolded.
“I thought it was great,” said Ferris. “I don’t think it could have gone any better. I’ve worked with Hada before. We’ve pulled dolphins out of the water. Over the past 3 years, we’ve indirectly worked with each other several times. I think these biologists don’t get enough credit. They’re working really hard.”
“This was honestly a by-the-book rescue,” Herring said. “I can tell you it’s not always like this. Sometimes we have to think outside the box and get really creative. But we were lucky today, with the manatee cooperating. We had a very knowledgeable team. I don’t think it could have gone better.”
The fate of the calf is now in the hands of ZooTampa.
“At this time, it is very likely that the manatee is in critical condition,” Herring remarked. “The calf was reported alone for four days. There’s certain signs we look for. For example, the manatee has sort of a peanut head. Manatees should not have a neck. When you see a neck it usually means it’s thin. When we looked at the manatee’s belly, we can tell there were skin folds—it’s not rounded out. At that point, it’s been alone for four days and it’s showing signs of being thin. It hasn’t probably been hydrating well or eating well. All of those factors can make the manatee immunocompromised. But he’s in great hands in Tampa. And he took to a bottle, which is a really good sign.”
The orphaned manatee was originally discovered Thursday.
“It was reported to me by Andy Percel,” Ferris said. “He saw it under a neighbor’s dock about four days ago and called me. We basically just kept an eye on it. I came and checked it with the police boat on Friday. He seemed to be fine. He was swimming around. Then last night I was looking for it again, and it was under another dock. So I called a buddy who is a biologist with the FWC and just gave him the basic rundown, what was going on with it. He told me if it hasn’t shown any improvements in the morning, and it’s still there, give the main biologists a call.”
Ferris is an 8-year veteran with the Marco Police Department.
“Part of my duties are resource,” Ferris explained. “Which is exactly what the FWC does. We handle any sort of agricultural or fisheries resource that we can. As far as regulating numbers, fish that are in season or out of season. Or any mammal that’s in distress. We help FWC and the county whenever we can.
Herring said it’s impossible to tell why the calf was orphaned. “We really don’t know why they are orphaned by their mother. Possible reasons could be that, unfortunately, the mother may have died. This time of year, watercraft could be a cause. Unfortunately, there’s no way for us to know why he got separated from his mom.”
Herring, Davidson, along with three other biologists, have responded to an upwards of 500 stranded marine mammals a year.
“We’re based out of Port Charlotte,” Herring said. “There are several labs throughout the state that are dedicated to marine mammal response. We’re considered the southwest field lab. We’re a lab of five biologists that monitor and respond to marine mammals as far north as Sarasota County and as far south as mainland Monroe County and as far east as Lake Okeechobee. So, we cover ten counties. A pretty expansive region, but we have a lot of great partners throughout the region who help us out.”
Herring encourages everyone to call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922 if they encounter a marine mammal that is in distress or has died.