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Boater rescues drowning manatee near Bradenton

Don Swartz and Elizabeth Bailey were the first to respond and called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for instructions on what to do.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Two local boat club staffers are being called heroes after they saved a drowning manatee, Tuesday.

The distressed manatee was spotted by boaters who alerted the boat club. The workers sprung into action.

"I was at the desk and had a member call in that they had seen a Manatee on their way out of our marina so I immediately started getting things together like lifejackets and stuff to go out and find the manatee," Elizabeth Bailey of Freedom Boat Club said.

"I told them to give me a better direction as to where it was and then I called Don to come and assist," Bailey said. "We learned that with any type of rescue it's best to always have two people."

"Well I arrived at work, and Elizabeth said 'let's go we've got a mission' and so I hopped on board and she was the one captaining the vessel and we arrived on scene and spotted the manatee right away. It looked as if it was just resting," Don Swartz of Freedom Boat Club said.

Swartz and Bailey were the first to respond and they called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for instructions on what to do.

RELATED: 2020 was a bad year for the Florida manatee, and 2021 is shaping up to be even worse

According to the incident report by FWC, an unresponsive manatee was floating at the surface of the Manatee River near the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature in Bradenton. It stated that Bailey and Swartz who were in a boat followed the manatee as it drifted close to shore. However, as wind and wave action began to push the manatee against a rocky shoreline, the manatee rolled belly up, according to the report.

"Fifteen minutes after monitoring the animal, the animal actually rolled over," Swartz said. "At that point, FWC advise that we had to get the animal turned over or it was going to drown."

Swartz was then asked by the FWC staff if he could get into the water in order to support the manatee until the rescue team could get to the scene and take over. 

Swartz, who is also a youth camp coordinator, said that's when his training kicked in. He jumped into the river immediately and held the animal until help came about 45 minutes later. 

"I'm used to keeping my emotions and my actions in check while rescuing little kids who have panic and crying when their little sailboats turn on top of them," he said.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay
Elizabeth Bailey and Don Swartz who work at Freedom Boat Club helped rescue a drowning manatee

Bailey stayed on the phone and manned the vessel while keeping a close eye on Swartz and the manatee.

"It's definitely sad to see when animals are in distress like that," Bailey said. "We're just happy our members were at the right place at the right time in the boat and noticed the manatee or it would've turned different."

Freelance photographer Mikko Claxton who saw what was happening took some of the only photos of Swartz in the water holding up the manatee.

"Found this guy in the water saving a Manatee," Claxton wrote in a Facebook post. "It was not breathing good due to red tide. So he was keeping its head up and dunking it every so often to maintain its breathing until Wild Life Rescue comes to bring the Manatee in for rehab."

An FWC spokesperson said a marine mammal rescue team responded and stretchered the approximately 9-foot manatee onto a capture boat. The manatee was then transported to a boat ramp, loaded into a transport truck and transported to SeaWorld.  

The Bishop Museum which is very near where the rescue operation occurred also serves as a rehabilitation center for some rescued manatees.

"Manatees, if they do have red tide illness, they will exhibit seizures and often times paralysis as well," Mandy Dierdorff with the Bishop Museum said.

This year has been the worst year for manatees that are being impacted by red tide and a shortage of seagrass on Florida's east coast.

"We've already lost about 1000 manatee this year and it's the highest number in any year in terms of mortality," Dierdorff said.

In 2020, 637 manatees died in Florida with the majority of the deaths considered perinatal. This means the animals were young and the cause was not human-related. The next leading cause of death was from boats.

FWC says it's important to help protect these animals because of the large number that are dying. They list several things you can do to protect manatees.

•  Avoid contacting the animals or feeding them

•  Show your support by donating to manatee programs either by sending money or buying the "save the manatee" specialty license plate. 

•  You can also volunteer to help clean up beaches and mangroves. 

Since manatees are difficult to detect when underwater, operators of boats and personal watercrafts can help by:

•    Wearing polarized sunglasses to help spot manatees.

•    Looking for large circles on the water, also known as manatee footprints, indicating the presence of a manatee below.

•    Looking for a snout sticking up out of the water.

•    Following posted manatee zones while boating. Avoid traveling in seagrass or other shallow areas.

If you see a marine mammal in distress, you should contact FWC immediately so trained professionals can assess the animal and give it the medical attention it may need. The FWC responds to reports of distressed manatees by investigating reports from the public and performs rescues for those animals in need of intervention.

Call FWC's Wildlife Alert Hotline: 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922), press "7" to speak with an operator. Never push back a stranded marine mammal back out to sea if found stranded on the beach.

RELATED: Orphaned baby manatee receiving care at Zoo Tampa