This Thing Called Courage

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Manate Update # Three


(From this morning's Boston Globe)

Manatee mania
Astray and endangered, 'Dennis' visits Cape town and knocks stocks off radar
By Bina Venkataraman, Globe Correspondent October 11, 2008
DENNIS - The docks sagged at Sesuit Harbor yesterday as crowds scrambled to catch what might be their final glimpse of an intrepid ocean explorer visiting the shores of Cape Cod. Wildlife groups are orchestrating a rescue this weekend for the Florida manatee, affectionately known as "Dennis," that has strayed hundreds of miles from its native habitat.
By 10 a.m. yesterday, nearly 150 eager onlookers had gathered, sporting baseball caps and Bermuda shorts, toting cameras and fanny packs. One woman pushed a stroller with a toddler in it onto a wobbly finger dock and peered into the water. A day earlier, about 600 people came to gawk and snap photos of the lumbering sea cow.
At cafes and marine supply stores, the visiting manatee - not the stock market - dominated the chatter.
Never before has a manatee been reported this far north in the Atlantic Ocean, although one came close in August of 2006, making it to Woods Hole before heading to Rhode Island and points south.
When the water temperature drops below 60 degrees, manatees are unlikely to survive, scientists say. If the rescuers succeed this weekend, the wayward manatee will be transported to SeaWorld in Orlando, where it will be rehabilitated and then released.
The commotion over the visiting manatee has turned at least one Dennis resident's life upside down. Terry Clen, Sesuit harbormaster, has kept guard of the manatee since Tuesday, directing boat and foot traffic in the marina around it. All was going well until yesterday morning, he said, when a "Mr.Clean kind of guy" reached over and tapped the manatee on the head.
"I should have arrested him," Clen said. Instead, a selectman scolded the man, who drove off.
The manatee has turned this cozy marina, usually sleepy after Labor Day, into an amusement park. "Imagine if this had happened in the summertime," said Michael Camire, a state environmental police officer who has been working crowd control over the past two days. "It would be a real zoo."
A lobsterman, on his way to check his traps, tried to maneuver around the crowd to get to his boat. "I'm gonna chop that chunk of blubber up and get these . . . people out of here," he said with a chuckle.
Other residents showed sympathy for the manatee. "I feel bad for him," said Jennifer Reddish, a waitress at the Sesuit Harbor Cafe. "He must be very confused."
Manatees are known for their stellar ability to navigate and for their endurance. They are the marathon runners of marine creatures, swimming slowly but at an almost tireless, steady pace. Whiskers cover their bodies, allowing them to detect boats or other objects in the water. But in cold water, a manatee's senses can dull.
This manatee, who has been chomping on kelp from the buoys and lines in the marina, appears to have an injured flipper and a missing eye, and has been lingering here so long that it has a cloak of emerald and brown algae covering its elephant-like skin. As it surged for air in the marina yesterday, flipping a giant, spatula-like tail, its backside looked like shag carpeting.
Scientists suspect that the Florida manatee, a federally endangered species, might be extending its range north as a result of global warming or because of competition for its diet of sea grass in southern waters from other thriving herbivore species.
"We are getting more and more reports of manatees up along the Atlantic seaboard," said Bob Bondy, a biologist with the US Geological Survey in Gainesville, Fla., who has studied manatees for 30 years.
Another possibility, says Bondy, is that the population is rebounding as a result of its protected status and that some adventurous animals seek out new territory in the summer when northern waters are warm, but get stuck when the temperature drops.
"It's such a far distance to swim in cold waters," said Nicole Adimey, a wildlife biologist and director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's manatee rescue and rehabilitation program. Without a rescue attempt, she said, "The likelihood of it getting back alive is very slim."
Adimey traveled from Jacksonville, Fla., to Cape Cod yesterday for the rescue. The plan is to lure the manatee to shore with lettuce, envelop it in a net, and lift the 600- to 800-pound beast out of the water with a crane. They hope to load it into a cargo plane, where veterinarians will shower the manatee with water until it arrives in Orlando.
Biologists believe the name "Dennis" is appropriate, because male manatees are more apt to explore unknown frontiers.
One Dennis resident had a different explanation. "He's gotta' be a guy," said Peg Cotter, who is about to return to her winter home in Foxborough. "He didn't stop to ask for directions."
Bina Venkataraman can be reached at bina@globe.com.

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