Deputy Jill Constant spends 10-hour shifts on the water. As a member of the marine and environmental lands unit for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Constant’s responsibilities range from arresting drunk boaters to untangling seabirds from fishing lines.
During a particularly bad red tide bloom earlier this year, the sheriff’s office received a call about a distressed manatee near the Treasure Island Causeway.
When Constant pulled her boat up to the seawall, she could immediately tell something was wrong with the sea cow.
The mammals normally come up for air every few minutes before submerging again. But this manatee was struggling both for air and to stay afloat.
“He was actually gasping for air every eight seconds, which is really labored breathing for a mammal of that size,” Constant said.
After making a call to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Constant confirmed the manatee was suffering from red tide paralysis. Red tide behaves as a neurotoxin on exposed manatees, which suffer seizure-like symptoms, lose motor function and ultimately drown.
Wildlife officials wouldn’t make it to the scene for another few hours, so Constant made a split decision.
She said jumping in the water to save the manatee was instinctual.
“I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t care if I was going to get hurt,” Constant said. “Protecting all species, protecting all walks of life is very important to me. And I’m aware of the risks and I’m OK with it.”
Constant, with help from two more deputies, held the manatee above the water where it could breathe for two hours.
“The manatee was very, very cooperative with us for at least an hour and a half,” she said. “You could tell that it was appreciative that somebody or something was trying to help this animal breathe.”
But as it regained its strength, the manatee began to get restless. Once wildlife agency officials arrived, they relocated the animal nearby, but far enough away from the red tide bloom that caused its distress.
“I do believe it was expected to make a full recovery because it was already feeling better when we were there,” Constant said.