The doctor is in the bay

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Veterinarians spend two days checking health of manatees

By Buster Thompson

Several of Crystal River’s manatees paid the doctor a visit this week.


Well, the marine mammals didn’t have much choice once a contingent of aquatic veterinarians and researchers netted them on Wednesday and Thursday off the banks of Shatz Island.

Working with the morning’s low tides along the King’s Bay peninsula, various wildlife and oceanography agencies hauled in eight manatees over the two-day period for extensive health checkups.

The operation was part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Sirenia Project, a longstanding federal research program that’s worked to collect biological samples of the endangered Florida manatee wherever they reside.

Dr. Bob Bonde said collected data helps scientists understand how manatees are doing in their environments and also makes it easier for students and others to research manatees in the future for conservation purposes.

“This is research gold,” said Bonde, a 38-year USGS research biologist and manatee specialist with the Sirenia Project.

This week’s manatees brought the Sirenia Project’s total catch-and-release count at Shatz Island to 245 since the project began focusing its studies there in 2006, Bonde said.

Shatz Island — also known as Paradise Point — is ideal for USGS and assisting agencies to base their operations out of because of the large number of manatees that pass by there.

Bonde said the adjacent channel to the north is like a “highway” for manatees venturing between the bay and the inshore sanctuaries like Three Sisters Springs, making it easier for them to net them as they pass through.

Members and volunteers of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Manatee Research and Rescue team kept a weather eye out for any signs of manatee noses stealing a breath or tails making trails in the water.

Once sights were set on a manatee, a boat crew jetted out from shore and released a large net in a semicircle to ensnare the surprised sea cow up against the bank. 

After they getting control of the massive flailing tail, volunteers got the manatee ashore and prepped it for transport by boat to another nearby beach, where the Dr. Mike Walsh and his team of veterinary students awaited to collect their samples.

Walsh, an associate professor with the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine’s Aquatic Animal Health Program, has assisted in the Shatz Island manatee health assessments for the past 10 years.

“Our work is geared toward making sure they’re healthy on the beach, and we also want to look at the medical aspects of these animals,” Walsh said.

As soon as the manatee arrives at their bay-shore clinic, research teams closely monitor the animal’s heart and respiratory rates.

Blood, urine, fecal, weight and measurement readings are then collected. Many of these collections are done by Walsh’s students wanting to get first-hand experience during their own undergrad and graduate studies.

“A lot of what’s important for them is to see how things are done at the best we can show them,” Walsh said. “Because if we teach them to go high and far, then they’ll step off high and far.”

After being marked and tagged with a Passive Integrated Transponder — a similar registration chip put into household pets — the manatee is released back into the bay.

The first manatee assessed on Thursday was a healthy pregnant female in her third trimester, Walsh said, adding she was suffering from early cold stress. 

On Wednesday, the group caught a thin mother cow and her well-feed calf, leading them to believe the mother was expending most of her fat in order to milk and sustain her little one.

“It’s motherhood at every species,” Walsh said. “Some of those individuals will sacrifice everything to make sure their child has what they need.”

To Bonde, it was just another reminder of why he keeps doing what he does. 

“I love this job,” he said. “Everyday, they don’t cease to amaze me.”

Walsh said federal protections of manatees have allowed a more stable and healthy population to return to Crystal River’s waterways.

“And if you take it away, it’ll go backwards,” he said. 

Bonde said the manatees overall health impressed him, proving Crystal River is a great place for them to live.

“If I were a manatee, I’d want to live here,” Bonde said. “Crystal River and its springs are the future of the manatees.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916 or bthompson@chronicleonline.com.