EVERGLADES, Fla. -- A team of wildlife rescuers headed into a remote section of the Everglades this week and saved a manatee trapped very, very far from home.
The 1,100-pound marine mammal evaded at least three flood-control gates and ended up stuck in western Palm Beach County in a two-mile canal, blocked at both ends, placidly bobbing in the water with the alligators, wading birds and other creatures that belonged there.
"There was nothing wrong with him except he was in the wrong place," said rescuer Tom Reinert, research administrator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "They're not supposed to be there. All the canals leading to that area are supposed to be inaccessible to manatees."
The manatee, which may have made it past the gates because of the heavy rains and high water of the past few weeks, was in no immediate danger. Even alligators would not consider this giant marine dirigible appropriate prey. But in winter, he would have no way to reach warm water and faced dying from cold stress, Reinert said. And there was a risk he could get crushed by flood control gates if he tried to make it past them again.
Workers from the South Florida Water Management District, which operates the canals and flood-control structures, reported the trapped manatee, a rare but not unprecedented event.
A team of more than a dozen workers from the water district and wildlife agency brought a giant net to the canal and tried to capture him. But the manatee struggled out of the net and disappeared into the murky water.
"It's very difficult to find and catch a manatee out there," Reinert said.
They returned the next day with two nets, using one to block his escape and the other to snare him. Up he went into a truck specially equipped for transporting marine mammals, with a lift gate that can handle 3,000 pounds, foam pads and climate controlled interior.
They checked the 10-foot manatee's health – excellent – implanted a microchip to keep track of him and brought him to a canal in Jupiter, close to the ocean but set back enough to be free of the heavy boat traffic.
He struggled a bit as they brought him toward the water, but the release went without problems, Reinert said. "He just swam off into the canal, took a breath and we lost sight of him."