Mother manatee, calf released off Lido Key after rehabilitation

LIDO KEY -- Most folks wouldn't celebrate gaining 30 pounds in 45 days, but that's what a group outside Mote Marine Laboratory were doing Thursday morning.

Fizz, a manatee calf, was discovered April 30 in distress with open lesions on his back and weighing in at only 61 pounds. He returned to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday weighing in at a much healthier 91 pounds. His mother, Cola, was released with him.

"There was actually skin and tissue hanging off, the lesions were really infected and nasty looking," said Gretchen Lovewell, the stranding investigations program manager at Mote.

Lovewell said they aren't sure what caused the lesions, though they did not look like injuries caused by a boat and instead may have been caused by barnacles growing under docks. Cola, a fully grown adult manatee weighing about 1,000 pounds, was fine during the rescue, but since she was still nursing Fizz, they were taken together.

The two were rescued by Mote in a canal off Lido Key and then taken to Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo for rehabilitation. The calf received wound care and antibiotics to prevent secondary infection. The pair bonded well, and nursing is "established and routine."

Staff members and volunteers from Mote, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Lowry Park Zoo gathered at the boat ramp at Ken Thompson Park on Lido Key to unload the manatees from trucks and release them back into the bay.

"We spend a lot of our time responding to dead or distressed animals, so to see it come full circle like this and get them back out is really amazing," Lovewell said.

It took 12 people to lift the mother from the truck to the water, and then another four people took the calf. While the two were waiting on the ground, the calf began to fidget, wanting to get closer to his mother.

"He's a mama's boy," one Mote volunteer said, laughing.

The two were placed in the water together around 11:15 a.m., slipping away easily under the green water as the crowd of about 100 people clapped. Lovewell said this is her favorite part of the job.

"It's just an amazing feeling," Lovewell said.

Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055 or at kirby@bradenton.com. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby.