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MANATEE BIRTH IN THE WILD // A special delivery in Weeki Wachee

Lil LaBrie was cleaning a boat in the driveway Monday when a neighbor summoned her to a canal on the Weeki Wachee River.

"Lil, Lil, there's a manatee!" hollered Mali Alger.

LaBrie dropped her bucket and ran to see the giant sea cow writhing near the middle of the 30-foot canal near the Hernando County coast.

"At first we thought she was sick because she stayed close to the top of the water," said Karen Nugeness, who lives nearby on the canal.

The women watched for about 15 minutes as the cow furiously thrashed the water and flipped her tail.

"It was a different movement," LaBrie said. "Usually they're nice and calm and stick their snoot up."

Suddenly the manatee began to swim full-speed ahead. Then, like a torpedo, something shot from underneath the mammal and out of the water, splashing about two car-lengths away.

The water turned reddish-brown.

Seconds later, a calf emerged.

Landscape workers nearby began to cheer while neighbors yelled, whistled and clapped.

"It was so exciting. I've never seen anything that spectacular in my life," LaBrie said.

The cow placed her calf on her left fin and rolled onto her back to help the baby breathe. They swam down the river minutes later.

Few people ever witness a manatee being born in the wild, said Cameron Shaw of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

The birth lasted about a half-hour, and Malger videotaped most of it. Neighbors named the calf Baby Ray, because they live on Ray Drive.

Shaw said it is common for manatees to seek out quiet areas, such as backwaters or canals, to give birth. He said manatees usually are born in the spring and summer and measure about 45 inches long and weigh about 65 pounds.

About 20 percent of calves are either stillborn or die shortly after birth because of inattentive mothers, Shaw said. He said that based on a description of Baby Ray's birth, the calf probably has a good chance of survival.

"I would say the prognosis is excellent," Shaw said.