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Rehabilitated manatee released back into familiar Sanibel waters

By Staff | Sep 29, 2009

The story of Shell, a severely injured manatee discovered by a Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officer in May, appears to have a happy ending after all.

Last Thursday morning, Shell – the name bestowed upon the adult male manatee by the rehabilitation staff at the Miami Seaquarium, where he recovered from his wounds over the past four months – was released back into the wild at the Sanibel Boat Ramp.

Looking back upon his journey, it is a remarkable feat to say the least.

According to FWC research associate Denise Boyd, the manatee was found in critical condition by an FWC officer on May 20 in a creek adjacent to Shell Point in Fort Myers. Wildlife officials immediately rescued the 1,100-pound mammal, which had suffered a fractured rib and a punctured lung as a result of being struck by a boat, and transported him to the Miami Seaquarium.

Over the next four months, Shell was treated for his injuries and rehabilitated at their facility, with hopes of someday being transported back to the Southwest Florida waters from which he once roamed.

On Sept. 24, that hope was realized.

“He was lucky because the FWC officer found him early and knew what to look for as far as his injuries were concerned,” said Boyd. “After we brought him in, we had a really positive outlook for a full recovery. The folks at the Miami Seaquarium took him in and rehabbed him to the point where he could be released back home again.”

Carried by cargo truck two and a half hours from the east coast, Shell arrived on Sanibel at 11:10 a.m. and was given a final series of physical and visual examinations. Boyd and several FWC representatives from their manatee division measured the 10-foot-long creature from head to flipper, and from side to side. They also implanted a tiny identification tag on the manatee, should he interact with humans again in the future.

Around 11:30 a.m., more than a dozen FWC officials, Miami Seaquarium employees, two marine veterinarians and several volunteers slowly began to move Shell from the back of the rental truck to the top of the boat ramp, where the manatee was allowed one last “rest” before being returned to the waters of San Carlos Bay.

“They go through a lot of stress during the transportation process,” stated Boyd.

After summoning a handful of extra volunteers, a group of 15 people lifted the tarp containing the manatee up. Taking small “baby steps” in unison, the rescuers reached knee-deep water before lowering their load. Once submerged, Shell began moving his flippers as he slid off the tarp and into the bay.

In only a couple of seconds, the manatee was moving steadily north towards the causeway bridge as onlookers and staff applauded the successful release.

“That was one of the smoother releases I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Dave Stelling, a part-time veterinarian with the Miami Seaquarium. “When he first came to us, he was a real fighter, so we didn’t know what to expect today. But it went perfectly smooth.”

Smiling broadly at the sight of Shell swimming off into the distance, Boyd paused to remind people that if they see a manatee that appears to be injured, they should immediately contact the FWC by calling 1-888-404-FWCC. Each year, nearly one-third of manatee deaths are attributed to boating-related accidents.

“This is a really great day for all of us… and for Shell,” she added. “This was as successful a release as we could have hoped for. It was a total team effort between the FWC, the Seaquarium staff, biologists and all of our volunteers.”