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Manatees stranded by Tropical Storm Debby rescued

TARPON SPRINGS — Tropical Storm Debby moved on, but stranded wildlife are among those still feeling its effects.

A pregnant manatee stuck in Lake Tarpon was the latest to be rescued and returned to its habitat Friday.

The roughly 11-foot, 1,600-pound manatee was trapped after Debby's historic rainfall forced officials to open the floodgates in the outfall canal leading from Lake Tarpon to Old Tampa Bay. After the gates were closed, the manatee was left with no way out.

A team from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was dispatched Friday morning to track down the manatee in the large freshwater lake. In less than two hours, the team had found the animal in the northeast corner of the lake and secured it in a net.

There was just one problem: The mammal was enormous.

"We had the hardest time getting her on the boat," said Martine de Wit, a veterinarian with the team. "It was a big animal."

Realizing they would not be able to transport the sea cow back to the bay by themselves, the team called the Tarpon Springs Fire Department for assistance. Together, 15 people from the two agencies succeeded in pulling the manatee up the Anderson Park boat ramp and into a U-Haul.

They drove her to Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs, a popular hangout for manatees, and released her. From the bayou, manatees can make their way to the Anclote River and then the Gulf of Mexico.

On Thursday, a team from the commission also rescued a manatee from a pond near Oldsmar's Bicentennial Park and released it in Old Tampa Bay. The manatee — one of two spotted in the pond — apparently swam there from the bay while water levels were high because of the tropical storm. When the water receded, the manatee was left with no way back to the bay.

On Friday, the team was also looking for two other manatees — a mother and calf — stuck in Lake Tarpon.

The pair was spotted Friday in an area of the lake inaccessible by boat, said Andy Garrett, a biologist with the team. The earliest the team will be able to attempt a rescue is Monday morning, said Kevin Baxter, spokesman for the commission.

The pregnant manatee rescued from Lake Tarpon on Friday stayed calm throughout its capture and transport to Spring Bayou, de Wit said. That is, until release, when it slapped its tail against the water, dealing the captors a parting splash before heading out into the bayou.

Andy Thomason can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or athomason@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Manatees stranded by Tropical Storm Debby rescued 06/29/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 29, 2012 8:09pm]
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