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Wayward manatee rescued from pipe

Her pipe dream _ a drink of freshwater _ became a nightmare.

A young manatee languished a week or more without food after getting stuck in a storm sewer pipe leading from the Banana River in Cocoa Beach.

"She couldn't turn around to swim back out," said Ann Spellman, a Department of Environmental Protection biologist. "The water level dropped and sediment built up behind her. She was stuck in there."

The manatee was rescued Wednesday after Spellman and others endured thousands of spiders and dragged the 7{-foot mammal on a stretcher 500 feet through the 44-inch pipe.

"She could not get out and had nothing to eat. She literally had sulfur deposits on her face. I would assume she was in there anywhere from a week to a month."

Spellman said the manatee was probably searching for a drink of freshwater from a sulfur spring that runs into the pipe.

"It's not a requirement for them, but they will find freshwater anywhere, including stormwater runoff."

Spellman said the manatee, which weighs 435 pounds, had lost considerable weight. Other manatees of her length weigh about 700 pounds, she said.

The unnamed manatee was in stable condition Thursday at Sea World of Florida in Orlando.

Sea World veterinarian Mike Walsh said similar manatees eat about 30 to 40 pounds of vegetation a day. The rescued manatee is being fed lettuce and spinach but is not showing a normal appetite.

"She's approaching food but she's not eating enough to maintain herself," Walsh said. "We're giving her fluids twice a day to rehydrate her."

Spellman said the Banana River manatee is lucky because most manatees retrieved from storm pipes are dead.

The manatee's plight came to light after Department of Transportation workers spied her Wednesday while replacing a grate on the storm pipe. The grate had not been replaced in 20 years, Spellman said.

"They looked down and there was a manatee in about a foot of water.

"It just popped up its head."

The manatee could not be taken out through that grate because it had just a 4-foot opening, so eight rescue workers climbed through the pipe, put the manatee on a stretcher and spent two hours dragging her 500 feet to a grate with a wider opening.

A backhoe lifted the manatee out of the pipe and a truck transported her to Sea World.

"The biggest problem in the tunnel was the fact that it was very small," Spellman said. "It was full of spiders, including poisonous spiders. We're talking thousands of spiders.

"It was like Indiana Jones down there."