TAMPA — The unrelenting surf pounding Bayshore Boulevard paused long enough Monday night for onlookers to make out a figure bobbing in the water.
A manatee. A mother.
For hours, wave after wave slammed it against the seawall.
Two other manatees swam nearby — a male and a calf.
"It made me really, really sad," said Keeley Fischbach, 28, who called Manatee Rescue for help Monday night. "I've seen these three before, along Bayshore. They're always together. Always."
The water level rose, spilling onto the sidewalk, into the street. The male and child wouldn't leave her side. Even after two dozen people gathered and moved the carcass out of the rough current to await wildlife officials, the pair followed.
On Tuesday morning, they were still there, nuzzling the dead mother.
It is not known how she died. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officials said it did not appear she was hit by a boat.
Some speculated the force with which she was thrown against Bayshore's wall may have harmed her, but veterinarians on the scene said they couldn't be sure without an autopsy.
"Manatees are very powerful swimmers," biologist Andy Garrett said. "We don't know what happened here, but they can typically handle rough surf."
Tropical storms and hurricanes not only affect people. They tear down trees, displace animals, disrupt food chains and destroy ecosystems.
Tropical Storm Debby's prolonged assault on western Florida has left scores of dead animals in its wake, and experts say there will be more to come.
Near-constant calls kept animal rescue volunteers running.
Reports poured in as the storm raged: baby birds blown out of nests, drowned kittens, wounded raccoons, flooded turtle nests.
"It's really unbelievable," said Marilyn Waldorf, a volunteer with Safe Haven Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Clearwater. "Everybody was disrupted by this storm, but these poor animals sometimes have nowhere to go, to escape."
Nesting animals are particularly vulnerable in a storm, experts said.
Along Indian Shores beach, a colony of about 500 black skimmers was nearly wiped out in the last several days, leaving about 100 birds on the shore and 21 chicks who were taken in by the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. The eggs were washed into the gulf.
The Pinellas County EagleWatch Program reported several flightless osprey chicks from across the region blown out of their nests. More than 80 birds were taken to the sanctuary's hospital Monday, officials said.
"The other impact it can have on birds is feeding," said FFWC spokesman Kevin Baxter. "Birds have to eat quite frequently. If the winds are too heavy or the surf is too rough for long periods of time, we could see a lot of starving birds."
Loggerhead sea turtle nests also are of concern when stormwaters erode the beaches on which they nest. It was not immediately clear how many turtle nests were lost to the storm.
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The manatees did not swim away until the mother was hoisted into the metal bed of a truck and covered with a silver canvas.
Fischbach, a physician at Tampa General Hospital, returned to Bayshore early Tuesday to watch wildlife workers take the dead manatee away.
She held her head in her hands as the mother was pulled from the water. "I'm so used to jumping in and doing whatever's needed to save someone," Fischbach said. "But here, there's nothing we can do. I feel so helpless."
The calf and the male were left in the water. They both appeared big enough to survive alone, officials said.
One last time, the calf lifted his nose to the surface. He took a breath, turned and swam away. As he did, onlookers voiced hopes that it wouldn't become another casualty of the storm.
"The calf's chance of survival depends on how much experience it gained with its mother," said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.
Manatees, like people, have varying personalities, Rose said, noting the more independent the calf is, the better its chances.
Times staff writer Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Marissa Lang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.