Dramatic Florida manatee rescue part of winter reality shift in Deep South

Seeking respite from the enduring cold, 19 manatees crawled hundreds of yards into underground pipe. Rescuers said it took ‘a village and an Air Force base’ to rescue the hefty beasts.

Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today/AP
Crowds gathered near the west end of Cassia St. in Satellite Beach, Fla., to watch the Florida Wildlife Commission, Sea World, the Satellite Fire Department, and public works work to save 19 manatees stuck in a drainage pipe.

A small herd of manatees caught in a Satellite Beach, Fla., storm drain weren’t found by passers-by, but a state wildlife agent who said she had a “hunch” that the balmy spot might have drawn in and trapped the lumbering sea cows.

The 19 sweet-natured beasts, including several super-cute calves, were rescued with the careful maneuvering of heavy machinery, makeshift slings, even a fire ladder truck.

Seeking respite from a series of cold fronts battering the Sunshine State, the animals had wandered together into the storm drain from an Indian River lagoon but couldn’t turn around, said Ann Spellman, the marine biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who oversaw the rescue.

Footage of the rescue showed onlookers cheering as rescuers slipped a calf into a nearby canal. The footage also showed rescuers petting other manatees as they were hoisted out of the culvert and inspected for injuries.

Ms. Spellman’s spot-on hunch, in a small way, underscores a chilly trend in the South.

The Brevard County manatee rescue came just four years after a severe cold snap killed hundreds of manatees, not to mention millions of fish. Hundreds of cold-stunned sea turtles were also rescued during that cold snap – most were rehabilitated, but many also perished.

Though that was an extreme event, similar winter weather events have become more usual than unusual as the US East Coast, including the South, endures what has now become a string of harsher-than-normal winters. From the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, temperatures in the past few days have hovered between 25 to 45 degrees below normal across the region.

"Especially this month, the temperature anomalies are way below average across a big part of the central to eastern United States," National Weather Service forecaster Bob Oravec told LiveScience.com.

That stubborn predicament means Georgia is for the first time pre-treating roads ahead of storms, Alabama has started an annual tax-free holiday on winter survival gear, and citizen volunteers and Florida wildlife agents, including Ms. Spellman, are doubling down to make sure exposed and stressed warm-weather animals have at a shot at survival.

Biologists spotted four manatees in the pipe on Saturday, but Spellman wasn’t satisfied with assurances on Monday that the animals had probably been able to escape. Indeed, upon inspection, she found six animals near the entrance of the storm drain. Rescuers then located another 13 animals stuck several hundred yards deeper into the pipe.

That discovery forced rescuers to remove parts of a road and cut into a steel culvert to reach the manatees and hoist them out.

“Our biologists said it took a village and an Air Force base” to get the animals out, says Brandon Basino, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

He said rescue groups included Satellite Beach fire and police departments, state biologists, Sea World, a group of divers called Black Water Divers, and airmen from nearby Patrick Air Force Base. Rescuers used backhoes and even a ladder truck to extract animals that can weigh up to 1,200 pounds.

“Our managing biologists are always proactive, and they've been working the coastline and manatee habitats for enough years to have an intuition, and this is one of those cases exactly,” says Mr. Basino. 

Manatees become stressed when water temperatures dip below 68 degrees, and can die if exposed too long. Cold-stressed animals quickly become underweight (surprisingly for their girth, manatees don't have a thick layer of fat) and break out with rashes. Fortunately, all of the 19 manatees rescued this week in Satellite Beach passed their post-rescue physical and were released into a nearby canal.

Biologists say they’ll continue to monitor the health of the herd. As a more practical safeguard, the city of Satellite Beach quickly welded bars onto the pipe so no more sea cows would seek shelter there.

The manatee rescue was by no means the only weather emergency reported from the South in the last couple of days. In Alabama, state officials had to cancel a “winter weather awareness day” at schools because it was too cold to come to school. And Wednesday morning, an MD-80 jet slipped off a taxiway at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport as North Texas saw widespread snow, frozen rain, and ice. Some 27 people have perished from the ice and cold in Tennessee in the past week, as the Volunteer State braces for more snow on Wednesday.

To be sure, at least so far, Florida has not experienced the kind of brutal temperatures and widespread animal and fish kills as it saw during the winters of 2010 and 2011. But that didn't detract from the drama and tension Tuesday as rescuers raced against the clock to extricate the manatees.

Manatees lumbering over 200 yards into a drainage pipe “is kind of weird,” says Spellman, the biologist who oversaw the rescue. “We were lucky to get what we got done when we got it done, because it’s supposed to rain, and that pipe would have filled up very quickly with water."

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