For more than three hours Friday, rescuers tried to coax a dying manatee calf into a net or into the shallows where it could be nudged onto a yellow stretcher.
This rescue, however, didn't have a happy ending.
But they're not giving up.
A team of state wildlife researchers and volunteers plan to return today or Monday to save a sea cow that has gotten stuck in a landlocked canal near Everglades City. Availability of supplies and manpower will determine which day the next attempt happens.
Time is of the essence.
The canal, dug in the 1960s for a subdivision that never materialized, apparently contains no sea grass, the main staple in a manatee's diet. The 5-foot-long calf has lost more than half its body weight, wasting away to 200 pounds or so, researchers estimated after a few glimpses of the calf.
"If we got him out of the water, he wouldn't be very round," said Dee Grant, a research biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Port Charlotte office. "He would be kind of flat."
The skin on its back is flaking away, a sign of cold shock, Grant said. When the water temperature dips below about 68 degrees, manatees must find warmth before hypothermia sets in. This one can't escape the cold.
The canal forms a rectangle around the Big Cypress National Preserve's headquarters, which resides in a former motel on U.S. 41 East, a few miles east of State Road 29.
Another waterway, called Seagrape Canal, joins the canal system at the southwest corner of the rectangle. The canal empties into Halfway Creek, which empties into the Barron River, which empties into the Ten Thousand Islands region. In all, the manatee is about 7 miles from open water.
How and when it got here is anyone's guess. A sliver of land separates this section of canal from the one that flows to the sea. The sea cow might have shuffled over the threshold shortly after Hurricane Wilma dumped heavy rains on the region last October. But even that scenario involves the assistance of a high tide and full moon.
John and Darlene Link, a retired couple from Tennessee who have worked as volunteers at Big Cypress for 12 years, were the first to spot the ailing calf. They were fishing in the canal Jan. 12 when a gray shadow emerged from the water nearby and took a breath of air.
"Nobody would have dreamed it would have been over here," said Darlene Link, 74, a retired bank supervisor. "We both said, 'What's he doing in here?'"
She reached for her camera and snapped a few photographs before the manatee disappeared into the tea-colored water once again.
Once the Links related what they saw to their bosses at the National Park Service, the search was on. Rescuers hunted by airplane, helicopter and boat and came up with nothing. Finally, on Thursday, John Link and another volunteer spotted the manatee from a boat.
Grant's crew from Port Charlotte arrived Friday at 11 a.m. Their supplies included a large fishing net, a wide piece of canvas that serves as a manatee stretcher, and a truck with a camper on the bed to carry the manatee on its three-hour trip to Tampa.
The manatee needs medical attention, Grant said. The team wants to bring the manatee, which is no more than 2 years old, to Lowry Park Zoo, where it can receive treatment.
The Port Charlotte crew was involved in 12 manatee rescues last year and has worked on one so far this year. Rarely does it take more than one day to capture a manatee that is ailing and unable to move with its usual deftness.
This manatee proved to be the exception.
At first, the National Park Service workers and the state wildlife researchers tried to drive the sea cow into the fishing net, which was pulled across the canal like a tennis net below the water. But the canal was at least 10 feet deep in the middle, allowing the manatee to scoot beneath.
Darlene Link stood on the mucky shoreline, calling to the manatee as if it were one of her pets.
"There he is," she said as the calf's nose broke the surface. "Come here, baby."
Seven minutes would go by, a nose would cause a ripple in the water, the team would regroup. Another seven minutes and the process would repeat itself.
The team closed in on the calf in a shallow spot and nearly had it onto the stretcher when the animal flitted back into the water and stayed down long enough to discourage the wet crew from trying again.
"He is good," said Denise Boyd, a marine research associate who works with Grant.
The manatee's quick movements in the water are a good sign, she added. Maybe that means it will be healthy enough to survive the move, if and when that comes. And maybe then it will live long enough to recover fully.
"He's breaking all the rules right now," Grant said.