Land & Conservation

Saving Manatees Left High and Dry by Hurricane Irma

Wildlife specialists in Florida come to the aid of the gentle giants before and after storms

Photo: A young manatee was among those rescued in Melbourne, Florida, last week after Hurricane Irma. | Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

A young manatee was among those rescued in Melbourne, Florida, last week after Hurricane Irma.

The first manatee rescue happened before Hurricane Irma even arrived.

The storm, which was still hours south of Sarasota, Florida, was so strong, it pulled water out of Sarasota Bay, stranding two of the gentle mammals.

Passersby came to the rescue and dragged the manatees back out to sea, with the help of two sheriff’s deputies (from Manatee County, naturally). It’s no small task, as manatees can weigh between 500 and 1,000 pounds when they’re fully grown.

That situation was unusual. What happened after Irma—when several other manatees were stranded around Florida after the hurricane’s waters receded—is not unusual at all. In fact, Andy Garrett knows to expect it.

Garrett, 40, is the Manatee Rescue Coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), based in St. Petersburg. When he saw the track Irma was taking, he knew he was in for a busy stretch at work. “If it comes up the west coast, I start getting very worried,” he says. “You’re worried about your own property and family, and it’s going to lead to these kinds of cases.”

Photo: Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

A wildlife expert examines one of the manatees rescued last week in Melbourne.

By Monday, Garrett said 16 manatees had already been rescued since Irma. Manatees live in all coastal waters and tidally connected rivers in the state, but strandings are more common on the west coast, where the ocean is shallower and a storm surge pushes more water up on the shore. As water rushes inland, the manatees come in to have a look. “They’re curious, so they will go over obstacles and get stuck,” he says. Irma, however, brought so much rain that six were discovered on the east coast, in Melbourne.

Garrett and other officials urge the public not to try to rescue manatees on their own. Even though they’re usually docile, the sea cows occasionally thrash about when people try to move them. “They’re big and strong, they’re still powerful,” he says. “They roll around, and they could hurt people.” When FWC experts arrive for a rescue, they microchip the animals and give them a medical workup before returning them to the water. The process can often require 12 or more people.

Photo: Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Andy Garrett coordinates manatee rescues for the state wildlife commission.

In fact, one of the manatees rescued after Irma is a frequent flyer with Garrett’s program. She turned up last week in a canal on the far side of a road in Bayport, about 60 miles north of Tampa. She already had been tagged with a microchip and from that, FWC staff could determine she had been rescued last year too, with her calf, in Tarpon Springs, about 30 miles south, after she had been injured by a boat.

Manatees are aquatic animals, but they breathe air, so they can survive quite awhile out of water, especially if they’re shaded from the direct sun. Last year, after Hurricane Hermine hit Florida, a mother and her calf were discovered a mile inland in a mud puddle in the forest—three weeks after the storm had passed. A medical exam showed they were thin from lack of food, but otherwise healthy. (Manatees eat sea grasses and other plant life.)

Photo: Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission / Karen Parker

In 2016, two manatees were found stranded well inland of the coast; wildlife specialists brought the female and her calf to safety.

While Garrett finally had power restored to his home six days after Irma, he stayed busy keeping track of the rescue efforts around the state—the latest of which was from a golf course pond in Crystal River, where six manatees were stuck. A bridge had collapsed during Irma, trapping the animals in the pond, but over the weekend volunteers were able to remove enough debris for the manatees to swim out.

Next on Garrett’s list: a Tampa manatee who got tangled up in some crab trap gear. But Garrett doesn’t think it is related to Irma—so back to business as usual.

It’s a routine he’s become accustomed to after 18 years working with the sea creatures, a job he has held—and loved—ever since he graduated from Eckerd College with a degree in marine science.

“They can be as mellow as they look,” he says. “They don’t have teeth that can bite you; they’ll come up and nuzzle. They are gentle giants.”