Baby manatee stranded on Lovers Key rescued, transported to SeaWorld

Andrea Stetson
Special to the Naples Daily News
Tanner Keilty, a park ranger at Lovers Key State Park, pours water over the infant manatee while he waits for FWC to arrive.

A baby manatee, no more than two weeks old, was rescued Wednesday after stranding itself or washing up on the beach at Lovers Key State Park.

“This is not normal,” Hada Herring, a Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission marine biologist, said about the stranding. “It is most likely an orphan.”

The baby manatee was discovered by a beach visitor Wednesday morning and reported to rangers there. Park ranger Tanner Keilty built a makeshift tent over the young manatee by using shovels as stakes and draping a huge towel on top. Keilty covered most of the manatee’s body with a damp towel to keep the moisture in. He then spent about three hours pouring water over the manatee until FWC biologists arrived.

“It doesn’t realize it is out of the water so it keeps holding its breath,” Keilty said, adding that the animal was transported to SeaWorld for rehabilitation.

Molly Schubert, an FWC marine mammal biologist, identified the manatee as a young male.

“It’s new. It’s very new,” she said. “That is really, really small. It was born within a few days to about a week, maybe a couple of weeks.”

Denise Boyd, FWC research associate, agreed that the 42-inch manatee could be anywhere from a few days old to just over two weeks. She said the young manatee could be orphaned, injured or ill. She is not ruling out that it could have been separated from its mother, possibly during Hurricane Irma.

“It could have been separated and didn’t hit the beach until it was weakened from not eating,” she said. “I don’t rule out that it could have been separated during the hurricane. It could have continued to swim to find mom and find food and then as a last resort, it stranded.”

Boyd said it was great that the park visitor called a ranger so the manatee could be helped, and the rangers did all the right things.

“The biggest thing is if they strand, it is generally for a reason,” she said. “Many folks first instinct is to push it out, but that is detrimental. The best thing to do is to call the FWC hotline. An animal that small, if pushed back out, it would not have survived.”

Keilty helped it survive with the water and shade. FWC biologists spent the four-hour trip to Orlando pouring water on the baby manatee. Biologists explained that if a young manatee doesn’t feel itself breaking the surface of the water, it will not take a breath.

“They will hold their breath until they die,” Boyd said. “It can be very confusing to a marine mammal, especially one at that age. If it stops taking breaths it may not be mature enough to start again.”

Previously:Hurricane Irma leaves manatees stranded in Manatee County

More about manatees:6 places to see manatees in Southwest Florida

While manatees from this area that need rehabilitation are usually taken to the Lowry Park Zoo, FWC said that zoo is under renovations, so the young manatee was driven to SeaWorld instead.

FWC marine mammal biologists Molly Schubert and Hada Herring examine the baby manatee while park ranger Tanner Keilty pours water on him.

“All manatees have a release plan,” Schubert said about the young manatee’s future. “Once they get a certain size, we tag them and let them out at a warm water site in the winter. But it will take a long time, a couple of years for that to happen.”

Boyd said that veterinarians at SeaWorld will give the baby manatee an exam, take blood tests and administer fluids.

“Then they offer food through a tube or a bottle,” she explained.

Boyd said a manatee that young has about at 50 percent chance for survival.

“It is a critical diagnosis,” she said. “Once you separate from mom, it is a pretty low survival rate. We will do our best to get them through that first year.”

Boyd is hoping for a happy ending.

“It can go back with a satellite tag when it is at least two years,” she said. “Our hope is it will follow other manatees and learn their behaviors, and if it doesn’t, we can intervene again.”

To report a stranded or injured manatee, call FWC at 888-404-3922.