Anne with newborn manatee twinsAnn Spellman is a marine mammal biologist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Endangered and Threatened Species (EATS) Program. In addition to rescuing manatees, her responsibilities include recovering all manatee carcasses in five coastal counties to help in determining the cause of death. She is actively involved with the South East U.S. Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and has conducted over 300 necropsies on whales and dolphins alone. In addition to her manatee rescues, she also coordinates and participates in dolphin and whale rescues. She is currently a member of the DEP Right Whale Program. In 1995, she was one of the first scientists to assist the New England Aquarium with the first radio-tagging of a right whale off of Brevard County.
To: Journey North
It is a well known fact that of all of the areas in the state of Florida, Brevard County on the state's Central East Coast, is home to more manatees throughout the year than any other county. Proportional to this high abundance, there are also more deaths and more rescues in this same area. As a result, the East Coast Field staff responds to more than a dozen confirmed distress calls each year. The causes of these distress calls vary from manatees hit by boats with propeller wounds or the more subtle impact wound, to orphaned calves and manatees with hypothermia. Like each call, each rescue is unique in its approach to recovering the animal. During the past four years, we have conducted some rather strange rescues. The outcomes were not always happy ones, but some were actually a call for celebration.
Of the 40 rescues I have conducted in the past four years, there are some that come to mind readily when I am asked to recount such an event. The most memorable would have to have been the rescue of twin newborn manatee calves one late evening in March at the Port Canaveral Inlet. The rescue itself was as simple as lifting these two orphans out of the shallow water and loading them in our truck. While my assistant Carmen, stayed in the back with the manatees, I drove to Sea World in Orlando, arriving at 2:30am. Since very few staff members were at the park at that time and the veterinarian needed assistance, we stayed with the baby manatees through the night, attempting to raise their low body temperatures and their blood sugar levels. When Sea World Animal Care staff arrived for early morning feeding, they were greeted by two of the cutest orphans, nicknamed Hans and Franz. It was a big deal because live twins are extremely rare. Unfortunately, they were exposed to cold temperatures for too long and within a few days we had lost both manatees. Manatees at this age and size needed to be with a mother and in warmer waters.
A successful rescue with a happier ending took place off the waters of Titusville, FL, but only after two days of frustrating attempts. When I was called to the scene, I noticed that a large manatee was floating unusually high and slightly to one side. Experience told me this manatee, although it had no propeller marks, had been hit by a boat and was suffering from impact wounds. More than half of all boat strikes that kill manatees are of the impact variety. Such a blunt impact to the manatee's back is capable of serious, if not fatal internal injuries. This manatee, later named Helga, had what appeared to be a pneumothorax. This occurs when blunt trauma of great force tears a hole on the lungs and allows air to leak into the cavity surrounding the lungs. As a result, the manatee cannot fully exhale this air, making it positively buoyant, particularly on the side that is affected. Helga was unable to submerge for more than a few seconds, and would pop to the surface like a cork whenever she tried. With the assistance of Sea World and the Florida Marine Patrol, we were eventually successful in rescuing this manatee. At Sea World, X-rays revealed not only damage to the lungs, but also that Helga was pregnant and in labor. She would not be able to deliver the calf without help. She was immediately taken to the University of Florida Veterinary school where the first-ever cesarian section on a manatee was performed. When the calf was removed, it was not breathing. The calf was successfully revived, however, its prognosis was poor and two days later he died. Helga, on the other hand, recovered completely and after she was freeze-branded and PIT tagged for ID purposes, we her released back into her native waters. Almost one year later, after no word of her whereabouts, a letter arrived in the mail with a picture of a manatee with not only freeze brand circles on her head, but also evidence of a cesarian section scar. She had been spotted by a resident approximately 45 miles north of her rescue and release sight, in a canal in New Smyrna Beach. It was a great relief to us to know she was doing so well.
While boats continue to be a serious threat to the survival of manatees, a less known but very serious danger to them are crab pots and monofilament fishing lines. Ever increasing numbers of manatees are becoming entangled in these lines, particularly around one or both of their flippers. The lines gradually tighten as the manatee swims and rolls, and eventually the lines can constrict to the point that they stop blood flow to the extremity, and the flipper dies and falls off. Two manatees that winter in Blue Springs State Park were among the lucky manatees to have Ranger Wayne Hartley as their caretaker. In November 1995, Ranger Hartley contacted me and informed me that both Marguerito and Lucille (a mother with a year old calf) were heavily entangled in fishing gear. Plans were made with our field lab and Sea World to attempt to capture both of these manatees during the next cold snap. That cold snap came in early February of 1996. As a result of some expert teamwork and Ranger Hartley's uncanny ability to single out the manatees in question from 60+ other manatees, both manatees were successfully rescued , treated and released, with both of their flippers intact. Two other manatees, Liberty and Woody, were not so lucky. Liberty was rescued on the Forth of July in 1995. Her flipper was so damaged from entanglement in two crab pot lines that it came off in the rescue net as we pulled her to shore. She has recovered from her injuries, but is one flipper less. Woody, an adult male, was rescued for a similar entanglement at NASA, within viewing distance of the Shuttle pads. After we pulled him from alligator stocked waters, we realized that he was not only entangled on one flipper, but that he was an amputee at the other. He was successfully treated and released in his protected waters at the Cape.
With the incidents of entanglement increasing yearly, it is an area to which I have taken special interest. Currently, my assistant and I are collecting data on entanglements and working on a viable solution to alter crabbing gear so that the manatees can not become entangled. We hope to have something to present the manatee research field in the next few months.