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Manatee rescued on Fort Myers Beach dies

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Sep 13, 2020

The manatee who was rescued last week on Fort Myers Beach by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) biologists and with the assistance of FWC officers and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, died Sunday morning while under the care of ZooTampa.

The West Indian manatee, who was named “MaeLee” by the zoo for having been rescued at Matanzas Pass in Lee County, died due to “severe injuries,” ZooTampa spokesperson Sandra Torres said.

According to ZooTampa’s Florida mammal supervisor Jaime Vaccaro, the manatee was believed to have suffered from two collapsed lungs, a fractured rib and other internal injuries from the blunt trauma of a boat strike on Saturday, Sept. 5.

The manatee, a fully-grown 1,000-pound and 10-feet long female, was being tube-fed at the zoo’s three-feet deep critical care pool since being rescued. She had a large cut across her back and had been in critical condition.

“That boat or watercraft must have been going at a pretty high rate of speed to cause that,” Vaccaro said.

A day before she was pronounced dead, the manatee was listed as being in “very critical” condition. Her condition worsened during the week. The manatee was expanding due to the air stuck in her lungs which had collapsed. She was floating above the water, unable to fully submerge underneath.

The zoo did a chest tap on the manatee on Saturday to try and clear the excess air out of her chest cavity that was trapped from her punctured lung, but unfortunately was not able to save her.

The manatee also had scarring from previous boat strikes. The zoo was caring for 14 rescued manatees at the time. She was one of two other manatees in critical condition. Vacarro said some manatees can recoup from a collapsed lung which can sometimes take months if the injury heals on its own. “Manatees are very resilient,” she said.

Lauren Smith, director of animal health for ZooTampa, said the manatee stopped breathing on Sunday morning. Efforts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful. Smith said the manatee suffered from pneumothorax because of the collapsed lungs, causing air to escape into both chest cavities. She has “severe lung trauma” and also had severe internal injuries, including several broken ribs.

A full postmortem is pending.

Molly Lippincott, an animal care manager at ZooTampa, said earlier in the week that Maelee was floating above the water in the critical care pool due to air stuck in the manatees’s chest cavity from the punctured lungs. “They should not be floating out of the water,” she said.

“The damage to a lung is much more serious,” and threatened the life of Maelee, Lippincott said. She said the zoo was treating Maelee with antibiotics and fluids to keep her hydrated. “Her blood work is concerning,” she said.

Manatees have no natural predators but have been decimated over the years by boat collisions, habitat destruction and the consumption of human objects. Runoff from sewage, manure and fertilizer have been blamed for algae blooms which can be toxic to manatees. Periodic outbreaks of red tide have also caused the death of manatees.

Since 2016 manatees have been listed as threatened in the United States under the Endangered Species Act. For decades, manatees were classified as endangered. There are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 manatees living in Florida waters. It is illegal to injure or harm a manatee.

So far this year, there have been 437 manatee fatalities reported throughout Florida. For all of last year, there were 606 manatee deaths recorded by the FWC.

In Lee County, there have been 55 manatee deaths this year, down from last year’s pace when 144 were recorded for the whole year. Lee County led the state in manatee deaths last year but is currently second in the state behind Brevard County.

Of the 55 deaths in Lee County this year, three were confirmed as related to watercraft and 23 were unrecovered or undetermined. Last year, 27 manatee deaths were confirmed as related to watercraft and 82 deaths were unrecovered or undetermined.

“We see a significant amount of cases from that region from watercraft,” Smith said.

The FWC urges those who see a marine mammal in distress to contact the FWC immediately so trained professionals can assess the animal and give it the medical attention it may need. The FWC responds to reports of distressed manatees by investigating reports from the public and performs rescues for those animals in need of intervention.

The FWC’s Wildlife Alert hotline is 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922). The FWC’s guidelines for dealing with marina mammals state that one should never push back a stranded marine mammal back out to sea if found stranded on the beach.

Guidelines for boaters to avoid striking manatees are to follow posted manatee zones while boating, wear polarized sunglasses to help spot manatees, look for large circles on the water (also known as manatee footprints) indicating the presence of a manatee below. Other clues for spotting manatees, which tend to stay in shallow water, is to look for a snout sticking up out of the water.

Vaccaro said those who encounter manatees should also resist the urge to feed manatees in order to avoid the manatees from approaching boats and other human activity.