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Heavy lifting required to rescue trapped manatee

LARGO — These are the things we see along Florida's canals:

Twenty-eight spectators, their golf carts at a safe distance, watching the dark water next to their mobile home park.

Nine workers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, wet and muddied, straining against a green fishing net.

One gray manatee, plopped on the grass of the canal bank.

It was an eventful day Monday along the Lake Seminole Bypass Canal in mid Pinellas.

For two months, neighbors who live on the canal have periodically spotted a trapped manatee swimming along. Authorities believe it came over the weir at the south end of the canal during the high tide of one of this summer's storms and couldn't get back over the barrier.

As the water temperature dropped last week to 68 degrees, biologists pushed to find and rescue the manatee, so it could swim to warmer waters. The manatee's health could suffer severely if the temperature dropped into the low 60s or the 50s for an extended period. (Monday, however, it was a balmy 73.)

Fish and Wildlife biologist Andy Garrett put a johnboat in at the south end of the canal Monday morning and worked his way north, searching for the manatee.

By 2 p.m., the rescue operation was in full gear.

Two Fish and Wildlife kayakers flanked the manatee. Garrett's boat took up the rear as the manatee pushed farther north. By 3:15 p.m., Fish and Wildlife workers dropped a green net across the canal just south of Ulmerton Road. The assembled team fastened it around the manatee until the animal was pinned to the side of the canal.

That was the easy part.

The hard part?

Hoisting the 800-pound, 9 1/2-foot-long creature up the bank and onto a stretcher.

It took nine fish and wildlife workers and a handful of volunteers tugging on the net. As soon as the manatee was out of the water, five workers jumped on it, pinning it on its stomach so it couldn't wield its powerful tail.

(Manatees can curl their flipper to their chin and cause a lot of damage. They don't have the same flexion in the other direction.)

From there, the manatee was untangled from the net, dragged onto a stretcher and moved to a nearby truck, where it received minor medical treatment.

The onlookers applauded.

"It's something you don't see every day," said Avis Noel, 77, who splits her time between Maine and the Four Seasons Estates mobile home park in Largo. "And they wonder why old people come to Florida?"

The manatee's land adventure wasn't quite over. A 9-mile truck ride brought it to a boat ramp at the War Veterans' Memorial Park near Bay Pines VA Medical Center.

At 4:22 p.m., the team dragged the stretcher into the water and the manatee disappeared into Boca Ciega Bay.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Heavy lifting required to rescue trapped manatee 11/03/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 7, 2008 12:36pm]
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