Chasing Manatees

Written by Jim Wortham
Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Photo of Jim Wortham.Not all of our flying is for ducks, and one of the highlights of this job is that you never know what will be up next in the queue. Following our May Waterfowl Surveys in Canada, I immediately traveled down to Florida for my next project which, in this case, was a “manatee hunt.”

The USGS, through its Southeast Science Center in Florida, has been tasked along with its research partners to quantify and map suitable habitats for manatees along the coast and downstream tributaries of the Gulf of Mexico. As part of this study, several manatees will be captured, outfitted with satellite tracking devices, and given a battery of health checks. The results add to a growing database of baseline health estimates for Gulf Coast manatees, and then will allow researchers to track the animals to monitor the timing of use and the types of habitats that they frequent. This type of information allows managers to better preserve or provide habitats for manatees, and also allows for more knowledgeable decisions regarding the potential effects of issues such as coastal development or managing boat traffic.

Our job with the airplane was to first locate potential manatees for capture, and once found, to guide the capture boats and researchers into position. During a 3-day period, we were able to successfully detain four separate manatees, including one particularly large female estimated to be over 2800 lbs. (see photos). Much of this flying was meandering search patterns looking for animals; however, once we found a candidate, we stayed over it until the capture teams were able to bring it aboard. In one case, this kept us in a 60-degree continuous turn for over 2 hours, enough to make Chuck Yeager dizzy.

There are several more future manatee capture efforts planned, and always the possibility of assisting with marine mammal rescue efforts, so check back for the possibilities of more tales!

View from the air as the capture teams deploy their nets. Credit: Jim Wortham, USFWS

View from the air as the capture teams deploy their nets. Credit: Jim Wortham, USFWS

Large manatee aboard for her veterinarian appointment. Credit: Jim Wortham, USFWS

Large manatee aboard for her veterinarian appointment. Credit: Jim Wortham, USFWS

Release back into bay. Credit: Jim Wortham, USFWS

Release back into bay. Credit: Jim Wortham, USFWS