JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A 950-pound female manatee rescued from a storm drain near the Ortega area of Jacksonville was released Tuesday at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City after finishing rehab at SeaWorld.
A team of marine biologists and veterinarians at the park had been caring for the 9-foot manatee since Nov. 30, when she was rescued from a storm drain at the corner of Davinci Avenue off Ortega Boulevard after hours of effort by Florida Fish and Wildlife personnel, Jacksonville firefighters and Jacksonville Zoo staff.
The manatee was first spotted about 8 a.m. that day by a worker who was part of a city crew paving the street in the area.
Manatees tend to pod in the area because of the luscious grass fields along the Ortega River, a JEA spokesperson said. But in this case, the sea cow munched a little too far.
The Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission worked for hours to cut pipes away so that the adult manatee could be pulled from the storm drain.
“Every life is precious to us. Doesn't matter who they are,” said JFRD District Chief Robin Gainey. “I've seen people put their lives at risk for a dog, and we get to them.”
Gainey said the rescue was a first of its kind for his department.
Dozens of onlookers gathered to watch as the crews struggled for hours to free the manatee. They finally lifted it free just after 3:30 p.m.
“I'm thinking, 'Get him out of there.' I couldn't understand it,” onlooker Beth Pulignano said. “If you were an alligator, (but) I didn't think a manatee could get through these pipes.”
The children in the neighborhood named the manatee Venetia, after the neighborhood, and made signs to encourage the workers. The firefighters were calling the manatee "Piper."
The manatee had some scrapes and abrasions on its nose.
More about manatees
The 2015 manatee count in Florida was 6,250 -- an all-time record. The species has rebounded strongly from a low of 1,260 in 1991, however, it is still on the endangered species list.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed taking the manatee off the “endangered” list as a result, and moving it to the “threatened” list. That proposal has received a lot of opposition.
Manatees have few natural predators, but the marine mammals are vulnerable to cold water and toxic algae blooms.
Typically, manatees migrate to South Florida when the weather turns colder in North Florida.
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