Six stranded manatees rescued from Pine Island Conservation Island pond on Merritt Island

Rick Neale
Florida Today

A team of rescuers successfully saved five stranded manatees that were trapped in a Pine Island Conservation Area pond on Merritt Island – but an energetic, uncooperative sixth manatee would elude capture for another two weeks.

The sixth manatee – a male weighing more than 300 pounds with a white crescent-shaped scar on his back – was finally corralled and captured Tuesday, said Jody Palmer, Brevard Zoo director of conservation.

“Every time we’d put the net out, we would think that we would have it in it. And it was a very large net. It's a 300-foot net. We’d think that we would have it there – and sure enough, we would see a tail swirl or hear breathing coming up outside of the net," Palmer recalled.

This manatee was rescued from a Pine Island Conservation Area pond on Merritt Island.

"It's not a very clear body of water, so you weren’t able to see exactly where it was. And this manatee can stay underwater for five minutes," she said.

“It was kind of discouraging, because we knew he didn't have a food source in there. And they gain their hydration from the food that they eat, the vegetation. So it was worrisome," she said.

An aerial view of the manatee rescue effort at a pond inside the Pine Island Conservation Area on Merritt Island.
The sixth manatee — a male weighing more than 300 pounds with a white crescent-shaped scar on his back — was finally corralled and captured Tuesday.

Pine Island Conservation Area is an 880-acre conservation area bordering the Indian River Lagoon. A series of marsh ponds, canals and borrow lakes offer access for canoeing, kayaking and fishing.

The stranded sea cows likely entered the pond by swimming over a concrete weir during a high-water event, but were later left unable to swim out, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials explained on Facebook.

Five of the manatees were rescued Dec. 28. But the sixth manatee evaded capture during a second attempt Jan. 5, forcing teams to reassemble for a third time Tuesday at the pond.

“We’re getting the University of Florida veterinary team. We're getting the Save the Manatee Club. We're getting FWC biologists and officers. I mean, we had the Brevard County sheriff's department out there flying a helicopter at one point," Palmer said.

"It takes an army to make something like this happen," she said.

The extended manatee rescue operation included personnel from SeaWorld, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Brevard Zoo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and FWC rescue staff from Melbourne Beach, St. Petersburg and Jacksonville.

Rescuers examine a stranded manatee that was puled from a Pine Island Conservation Area pond on Merritt Island.

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Each rescued manatee received a health assessment. Four of the marine mammals were returned to the Indian River Lagoon via a Port St. John boat ramp. The other two manatees, including the last one captured, were taken to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for a rehabilitation stint.

"FWC’s manatee rescue teams work hard to respond to reports of manatees in distress. Sometimes manatees find their way into areas where they wouldn’t normally have access to, like during higher-than-normal tides due to storms or other high water events," said Michelle Kerr, FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute spokesperson.

Kerr said Florida residents should report any manatees in distress to FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922.

Rescuers examine a stranded manatee that was puled from a Pine Island Conservation Area pond on Merritt Island.

Rick Neale is the South Brevard Watchdog Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or rneale@floridatoday.com. Twitter: @RickNeale1. To subscribe: https://cm.floridatoday.com/specialoffer/