ST. PETERSBURG — Courtney Zak had just parked her patrol car on 22nd Avenue S to eat lunch when a frantic teen rode up on a bicycle. A manatee was stranded in a nearby spillway, he said, just south of the Twin Brooks Golf Course.
Zak followed him and found that the 9-foot, 800-pound sea cow had moved to a 2-foot-deep ditch on the eastern side of the spillway near 37th Street. The creature was trying to find a way out of the murky water.
That was May 31.
When Zak called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, officials recommended giving the manatee a chance to save itself. It just had to thrust itself over a low concrete wall and into nearby Clam Bayou.
They waited and watched.
"It seemed like it didn't have the confidence — the confidence to say, 'I can overcome this obstacle,' and if it got over it was going to be free," said Andy Garrett, the wildlife commission's rescue coordinator.
So on Wednesday, they launched a rescue and notified Zak, who showed up in her police training polo and cargo pants.
"They're such gentle giants," said Zak, 35. "You just want them to be safe."
• • •
A manatee rescue is a complicated feat.
About 15 wildlife commission rescuers, assisted by Clearwater Marine Aquarium volunteers, gathered at the spillway at 9 a.m. They brought their Manatee Rescue Van and sent kayaks into the water. They piled a johnboat with various nets, hoping to pull the beast to shore.
But it proved difficult to spot the manatee in the deep, murky water. About 25 people circled the lake, some running, others driving, waiting for the mammal to come up for air.
"My goal is to see a nose," one volunteer told another.
Suddenly someone spotted a ripple in the smooth water.
"There it is!" a volunteer called out.
They quickly deployed a containment net designed to keep the manatee from swimming north.
Zak stood on the west bank, scanning the water as she had every day of the last 10.
She wondered if he was eating trash. She wondered if the water was deep enough. She wondered about the half-dozen boat propeller scars that marked his slick gray back.
A few days ago, she saw him try to climb out. He got stuck at the top of the wall.
"If I could bring him home," Zak said, "I would."
Rescuers were drawing out a second net designed to catch the animal. It made a semicircle on top of the water, and volunteers jumped in and splashed, hoping to shoo him in the right direction.
"Poor thing has to be so scared, though, don't you think?" Zak asked her husband, fellow police Officer Tim Regula.
Zak realized that when the manatee was rolled onto the shore, she'd be on the wrong side of the lake. She started to walk, and then run, as volunteers pulled in the last of the net.
It was empty.
• • •
It took nearly four hours, from start to finish, to pull the manatee out of the spillway.
"I'm going to stay here until he's caught," Zak said, "or until they go home."
Rescuers followed the same pattern — waiting for the manatee to surface, drawing out one net and then another — until they pulled onto the bank what they determined was an adult male.
From there, they used a blue mat to transport him onto level ground, tripping over the gaggle of onlookers that had been waiting for a glimpse of the manatee.
In the shade, they placed pressure on his body to keep him calm while they measured his length, marked his scars and tagged him for scientific research. They determined he was in good health and decided he could be set free.
Zak stood nearby during the examination and snapped pictures. When he bucked, throwing off rescuers, she said, "Awww."
"Being a police officer, you don't necessarily see the best things every day," said Zak, who has been on the force for 10 years.
About 20 minutes after they pulled him from the water, rescuers hefted the manatee into the transport van and drove him to Maximo Park. They let Zak help carry him into the water, soaking her boots and cargo pants.
As they lowered him, he slid quickly away, splashing them with a final flick of his tail.
Claire Wiseman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8804. Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.