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Manatee lovers to the rescue

When a manatee is in trouble, the Manatee Rescue Team moves into action.

The 20-member teams include the staff of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge, volunteer divers and other concerned residents.

Once a call for help comes, Lynne Larson _ volunteer coordinator for the group _ starts by calling into duty the 13-foot blue-and-white Boston Whaler, which belongs to the Jesse White Foundation (a manatee advocacy group).

Then the rescue team is called into action. It's often a tough job.

Once the manatee is located, the boat maneuvers to get as close as possible. A net is deployed from the boat and divers try to coax the injured manatee into it, not always easy when dealing with a wild animal that could weigh up to a ton.

Because the divers are often in water too deep to get a foothold on the bottom of the river to lift such a large weight, the boat is partially sunk to the animal's level.

"Sometimes we have to tilt the boat and roll the manatee into the boat," Larson said. "Then we must make the trip to the nearest landing to transport the animal."

Larson recalled a particularly difficult rescue in the Little Homosassa River. "An 1,100-pound female had foundered in the water with a dead, unborn calf," Larson said. "She was very big and we sank the boat. Luckily it was shallow and the divers could stand."

The trip to the nearest landing was nearly four miles and the crew used a patrol boat with a flashing light to lead the emergency vehicle.

Once at Sea World, it took doctors nearly four hours to remove the calf. "She became the first manatee in history to undergo a general anesthetic," Larson said. "They had to use a Culligan bottle cut off and fitted with gauze on the bottom. She was up the next day, but died from a hemorrhage a few days later."

Unfortunately, that's not an uncommon ending. Larson said the rescued animals often die. "The sad part is that the ones we rescue are in such poor condition that many don't make it," he said. "The good part is that each one provides more information."

Cameron Shaw, who is projects coordinator at the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge, is the official team leader in charge of the rescue team.

Shaw said that while the core of the team is made of Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge employees, the need for volunteers is always there.

"We need participants who can drop everything," he said.