NEW PORT RICHEY — The mother manatee writhed and wailed in the netting as workers held her against the canal's bank Wednesday.
But it wasn't just the net that had trapped her — it was the canal system that mother and calf found themselves trapped in since last week.
Conservation experts spent about two hours capturing the two animals. They had hoped to release them back to the wild the same day. But an injury to the mother's tail meant they needed to be sent to Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo for rehabilitation before they can be released.
The manatees became stuck in the canals of Harbor View Mobile Manor in New Port Richey last week after city workers repaired a culvert leading to the Pithlachascotee River, cutting off their only exit.
"We were hoping that potentially they'd be able to swim through the new culvert, but we saw that from the mom's size, there was no way she'd be able to fit through that culvert," said Andy Garrett, rescue coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Wildlife workers corralled the manatees to a corner of the canal, then captured them with a net.
The mother, a 1,240-pound behemoth, likely visited the quiet canals to either give birth or because she felt it was a safe space for her calf to spend its first few weeks, Garrett said. But it became clear during the week that the mother had become restless and wanted to leave, prompting officials to take action Wednesday.
Using kayaks and boats, workers first struggled to locate the animals, then herd them. Boaters got behind the manatees and made as much noise as possible — slapping paddles against the water and boat hulls, revving engines — to scare the manatees and direct them toward the netting.
Once the manatees swam into the corner of the canals near a boat ramp, wildlife crews were able to catch them in the nets and pull them into shore.
The 93-pound calf, which experts guessed was only weeks to a month old, was in good condition.
"Fat and healthy," Garret said.
The mother, however, was a different story. Her tail was badly scarred from what conservation experts believe was a run-in with a boat propeller. Red flesh was still visible, indicating the wound was relatively new.
The mother made distressed noises as workers held her on a canal's bank. Garrett said the net was digging into her face and she was likely feeling the weight of her own body out of the water. It took about 20 people to lift her using a stretcher, basically a tarp with handles, to a tent where workers drew blood and administered antibacterial shots.
Garrett said the mother would have struggled to live out in the wild with her tail so badly damaged. Experts wanted to monitor her at the zoo and see how she progresses before releasing mother and calf.
But sadly, he said, manatees often endure such grisly injuries.
"We've seen pretty bad tail injuries," he said. "They're pretty resilient animals."
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @josh_solomon15.