A dozen residents stood quietly on the dock, pointing at a flipper in the fogged water.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) staff members and volunteers churned along a shallow Punta Gorda canal, pulling a bobbed net that was anchored across the water. The area between the two ends of the net progressively got smaller, the farthest end generating splashes as it got closer to the boat.
As the net was pulled closer to the edge of the boat, a dark gray mass appeared, jerking, it’s tail slapping the water in a last attempt to stay in the canal.
And there was the manatee.
Three days prior to the coordinated manatee rescue, Punta Gorda resident Trina Talbakov, 31, saw him surface in the canal behind her house. The initial sight of the mammal was exciting, and called for the typical photo-op. But then he was there the next day.
“He looked depressed, lethargic,” Talbakov said.
Talbakov recognized the manatee because of a white scar on his back. For a few years, Talbakov saw the manatee accompanied by calves, but the juvenile was alone this time, surfacing slowly, his tail pivoting an odd way. Though manatees need fresh water to survive, this manatee stayed in the brackish water for three days, drifting from one dock to the other.
Talbakov called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) the second day, knowing something was wrong. Yesterday, FWC’s rescue team responded with a boat and their team of a dozen hoisted the 600-pound manatee out of the water.
“It seems like he has a chronic illness,” said Andy Garrett, the state’s manatee rescue coordinator. “He’s very thin.”
The manatee also had red marks on his back that indicated he was most likely harmed from a boat. Garrett doesn’t think the illness involves red tide, but “we won’t know until he’s been tested.”
Of course, Garrett is hoping for a smooth recovery. “He was active, still showing some fight on the boat,” he said, and pointing out that the manatee was swimming over to the fresh-water hose to drink. “But you never know how badly they’re injured internally.”
The manatee will be transported to the rescue and rehabilitation group at SeaWorld Orlando where they will x-ray and run blood tests to determine the exact illness in the animal.
FWC urges the public to report sick, injured or dead marine mammals and sea turtles to their Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922.
Originally published in the Charlotte Sun on Jan. 5, 2019.