Wayward Manatee Rescued, Found To Be Pregnant

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Marine Mammals

Rescuers gingerly prepare the manatee to be loaded on a truck for its trip to Connecticut. IFAW/J. CUMES

The manatee that visited Harwich waters over the summer got a surprise last Thursday when it was captured by marine mammal rescue experts and shuttled to the Mystic Aquarium for rehabilitation.

And then it had a surprise for researchers. It's pregnant.

On Tuesday, veterinarians were conducting a routine medical exam on the manatee, named “Washburn” after the island in Falmouth where it was rescued.

“An ultrasound conducted by our veterinary team determined that the manatee is between four and five months pregnant,” aquarium President Stephen Coan said. “This further elevates the importance of this effort and the care she is receiving by our world-class team of professionals. For all of us it provides a boost to the conservation efforts of this incredible but endangered species.”

The 800-pound female was rescued by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) last Thursday in Waquoit Bay, just before the water temperatures dropped to an uninhabitable 67 degrees.

“We were really fortunate to find the manatee and rescue her before the water temperatures dropped,” said IFAW Animal Rescue Program Director Katie Moore said. “Knowing that she is carrying a calf makes her survival even more important.”

The gestation period for a manatee is about one year. The pregnant manatee will continue to be monitored to assess when she will be stable enough for transport to longer term rehabilitation in Florida before ultimately being released back to coastal waters.

Early last week, IFAW volunteers fanned out across the Cape, searching south-facing waterways for the manatee. Having spent nearly three weeks in Harwich, it had begun to move westward and was spotted off Craigville Beach and then in Cotuit Bay. Acting on a tip, rescuers spotted the manatee off East Falmouth and corralled it with a seine net before carefully loading it on a truck.

Rescuers monitored the animal's breathing, analyzed its blood and checked its health before transporting it to Mystic Aquarium.

Once water temperatures slip below 68 degrees there are major concerns for the health of the herbivore, which is acclimated to warm southern waters. In 2008, a manatee that spent time in Sesuit Harbor in Dennis stayed too late in the cool waters. IFAW put the manatee in a truck to be transported to Sea World in Florida, but it did not survive the trip.

The manatee rescued Thursday considered Harwich its home for nearly three weeks. It had been seen in the waters of Saquatucket Harbor on Aug. 29 and at other times in Allen Harbor and Herring River.

“We’re hoping that with additional medical care and after some time in the warm water pools at Mystic, the manatee will bounce back,” Moore wrote in an online post. “Once stable and strong enough for transport, we will bring it to more permanent rehabilitation center in Florida where the manatee will have more time to recuperate before ultimately being released back to the wild.”

Washburn arrived in Connecticut in stable condition, and immediately began eating and acclimating to its new surroundings. It is the first manatee at Mystic Aquarium.

“We are incredibly honored to have the opportunity to care for this animal,” said Janelle Schuh, the aquarium's stranding coordinator. “It is essential to us [as] an organization to care for and protect the ocean planet including its inhabitants. And, while we do this every day, bringing this animal’s story to light in our geographic area is even more poignant as a way to inspire even more efforts to save the species.”

In addition to their federal status as an endangered species, Florida manatees are important as an indicator species because they provide insight about environmental and habitat changes.