How many manatees are playing hide-and-seek in the Chesapeake Bay?
"That's a very good question," said James A. Valade, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist from Jacksonville, Fla., at a briefing in Annapolis yesterday. "We're certainly scratching our heads and wondering."
So far, there has been visual confirmation of only one. But reports of manatee sightings from the Susquehanna River south to Queenstown Creek have come at the same time or in locations too far apart, prompting scientists to ponder whether there might be more than one of the endangered mammals in the bay, he said.
That creature, seen most recently near Queenstown, could be in mortal danger as water in the bay and its tributaries becomes colder. Water temperatures in the area have ranged from 68 degrees to 72 degrees recently. After prolonged exposure to temperatures of 66 degrees or less, manatees may stop eating, dehydrate and die.
But even if rescuers fail to catch the manatee and move it to Florida, there may be a chance it could survive, Mr. Valade said.
"There are warm water outfalls associated with some of the power plants here in the Chesapeake," he said. Water temperatures near the outfalls could remain in the mid-70s during the winter, providing a manatee haven.
Experts from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Sea World of Florida, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Marine Animal Rescue Program of the National Aquarium in Baltimore have united to try to catch the manatee.
If the animal is captured, it will be taken to the National Aquarium in Baltimore for an examination. The manatee, if healthy, then will be whisked to Sea World of Florida for another exam and released to warmer waters.
Officials said yesterday that they had not yet tallied the cost of the rescue effort, which is being financed with endangered species preservation funds and financial support from the Save the Manatee Club of Maitland, Fla.
"Even the life of a single manatee may have significant consequences for the population as a whole," Mr. Valade said. Only about 1,850 manatees are thought to remain in Florida, and the loss of even a few may harm the species' chances for survival.
Steve Lehr Sr., an animal care specialist with Sea World of Florida who has rescued trapped or wounded manatees, said there are several reasons the animal, first seen in July, has evaded capture.
The manatee can hold its breath and swim underwater for 15 minutes at a time, he said, and despite its bulk is very agile. This particular specimen, a mature adult, is apparently in good physical condition, having found a ready supply of an underwater grass called ruppia.
"We're also working with a very large body of water," he said, which the manatee uses to its advantage, diving into deep channels when pursued.
"He's become very wily," Mr. Lehr said.