March 15 started like so many other days for Jon Fields, a veteran lock operator at the Port Mayaca Lock & Dam on the east side of Lake Okeechobee in south Florida. As he was performing his pre-operation checks to begin the day, he noticed a manatee along the shore of the lake.
“I thought he was eating, so I took care of some other chores,” Fields said.
After helping some boats move through the lock, Fields looked at the shore again and noticed the manatee hadn’t moved.
“His behavior was unusual,” he said, “I couldn’t see his fins moving; his back tail never moved.”
Fields and his co-worker, lock operator Danny Williams, noted the manatee was still alive. They notified biologist Sharon Tyson who works at the Jacksonville District’s South Florida Operations Office in Clewiston. She began working with staff at the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to organize a rescue mission.
“I found the seriously injured manatee outside the lock structure,” Tyson said. “The lock operators observed the manatee while the rescue was organized. It was able to drift and swim downstream to Indiantown where it was rescued.”
Tyson said the manatee suffered numerous broken ribs and a ruptured lung. The injuries were likely the result of an encounter with a boat.
“Imagine eating, breathing, sleeping, mating and feeding young while walking down the middle of a highway,” Tyson said. “Manatees live this way every day.”
She wasn’t sure the manatee would survive following its rescue.
“I was concerned about its condition because there is a certain point of weight loss from which they can’t recover,” she said.
The FWC transported the manatee to Miami Seaquarium for treatment. It responded well. At the time of the rescue, the manatee was 7½ feet long and weighed 450 pounds. By mid-August, the manatee was more than eight feet in length and weighed 550 pounds.
By early August, the manatee had been rehabilitated to the point that it was ready for release. On August 13, the animal was set free into the St. Lucie Canal at the Timer Powers Park Boat Ramp in Indiantown, about a mile from where it was rescued.
“Everything the lock operators did contributed to success,” Tyson said. “They observed strange behavior prior to its passage through the lock. They cautioned boaters in the chamber that an injured manatee was present. They held the gate open until the manatee safely passed. They contacted the Manatee Hotline and observed the animal while performing other duties.”
Fields was pleased to hear the manatee had been nursed to health and was being released.
“I’m happy he survived,” fields said. “I imagine he’s happy to be getting out into water.”
If you discover an injured manatee while boating, call the 24-hour FWC Hotline at 888-404-3922 and press 7 at the prompt. You can also dial *FWC from your mobile phone.