TAMPA — It took almost six hours of scheming, strategizing and maneuvering for a crew of Tampa marine and wildlife officials to rescue a manatee caught in a crab trap line Thursday afternoon off the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
The 2-year-old female, about 7 feet long and 350 pounds, was released back into the bay just before 4 p.m.
The rescue effort actually started at noon Wednesday, according to Andy Garrett, a biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
That's when authorities received a report of a manatee dragging a green object in the water, but when they arrived, they could not find the animal, he said.
At 9:45 a.m. Thursday, a fisherman spotted the manatee again, and wildlife officials and a Tampa Police Department marine unit hurried over.
They found the manatee with a green plastic foam ball bobbing behind it, and they realized that the line was attached to a crab trap dragging along the floor of Tampa Bay, Garrett said.
"They like to play with those Styrofoam balls," Garrett said. "It's like a toy to them, and then the line gets looped around their flipper."
The real challenge was not identifying the object, but figuring out how to cut it off.
A rescue unit crew member snorkeled over and got close enough to tag the animal so officials could track it if it fled. But before the snorkeler could untangle the crab trap line, the manatee took off, Garrett said.
"At that point, it started swimming away and diving down to get away from us," he said. "It was a relatively stressful event for it."
The crew kept following the manatee, but every time the rescuers moved closer, it swam away, Garrett said. Several snorkelers tried to approach the manatee without scaring it away, but none was successful.
By 2 p.m., rescue workers decided to try a different tactic: capture the manatee and pull it onto a wildlife commission boat, he said. By about 3, they had the manatee on the boat and took it to the Courtney Campbell Parkway boat ramp, where they assessed the animal for injuries.
The entanglement was recent, Garrett said. There were some minor abrasions where the line had rubbed the skin around its left flipper, but no serious damage.
As officials removed the line, implanted a microchip and took photos for later identification, the manatee slowly wagged its tail from side to side. Crew members continuously doused the animal with buckets of water.
It was back into the bay about 3:45 p.m.
Garrett said he and his crew are called to similar entanglements every few months.
According to the wildlife commission, 602 manatees have died this year in Florida waters, compared with 289 in all of 2009.
Of this year's deaths, 238 were attributed to the winter cold spell that hit the region.
Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report.