A 41-foot U.S. Coast Guard vessel on routine patrol last weekend crushed a 1,100-pound manatee swimming in shallow water just off the Citrus County coastline, authorities said Monday. The accident Saturday morning raises the number of manatees killed in Florida this year to more than 180, according to state officials. It also dampened the spirits of manatee advocates who were celebrating the birth Thursday of a manatee at a nearby state park.
Chief James Krzenski of the Yankeetown Coast Guard Station called the death "a very unfortunate incident."
"We here at the Coast Guard Station are all very saddened by what had happened," he said in a prepared statement. "One of our many duties is to protect the manatees."
Coast Guard officials said the vessel was traveling about 19 knots, or approximately 22 mph, near the mouth of the Withlacoochee River when the accident occurred. The vessel was heading into the Gulf for a routine patrol.
At low tide, the water in that area is about 5 feet deep and the vessel draws about 4 feet of water. As the vessel passed between channel markers 31 and 34, Petty Officer Mike Trautwein heard a thumping noise.
When the crew stopped the vessel to see about the noise, they found the injured manatee in the wake. The animal then swam into an area inaccessible by the large craft.
Krzenski theorized that the 10-foot-long manatee had been lying on the bottom in the shallow, murky water when it was struck.
At the Coast Guard's request, Florida Marine Patrol officers came to the area by boat. When they reached the animal, it was dead and they towed the carcass back to shore. A necrop
sy was performed at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park and the animal buried.
Veterinarian Mark Lowe said the animal bled to death internally after being crushed under the vessel's keel.
"That's a very common cause of death in manatees that have been killed by a boat," Lowe said.
Krzenski said he investigated the incident and found that the crew was not negligent. A National Marine Fisheries agent on board agreed that the situation was unavoidable and the Marine Patrol also agreed.
As of September, 176 manatee deaths had been recorded statewide this year by the Florida Department of Natural Resources. State officials told Lowe that this death and another in the Panhandle over the weekend brought the death toll to more than 180.
Last year, 166 of the endangered mammals were killed in Florida.
Despite news of the dead manatee, Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park officials remained optimistic about the most recent arrival in their manatee display area.
A manatee named Amanda gave birth to a female calf late Thursday or early Friday at the park's Fishbowl area in a special isolation pen. Officials had announced last week that Amanda and another manatee, Rosie, were pregnant.
Park volunteers and rangers kept a round-the-clock watch on the new manatee calf until Sunday night when the watch was switched to daylight hours only, said Lowe, who serves as the park veterinarian.
Five manatees have been born at the park, but three have died. The isolation area and more detailed observations of the baby are part of the park's program to give the calf as good a chance of survival as possible.
The baby, which is estimated at between 60 and 65 pounds, seems healthy and is nursing at regular intervals, park spokeswoman Susan Dougherty said Monday.
The manatee, which has not yet been named, also was videotaped Sunday munching on lettuce or cabbage leaves alongside its mother.
Other manatees in the Fishbowl have been curious about the new addition, as has manatee Rosie, who may give birth to her own calf any day or weeks from now, park officials say.
"I'm trying to be upbeat, but cautious because we've lost a couple of babies that weren't feeding," Lowe said. "It's thrilling to get to be involved with one with such a good chance of making it."