Ellie the manatee, a regular visitor to Alabama waters since at least 2006, was found dead Saturday, floating near the ship channel in Mobile Bay.
In 2009, Ellie became the first manatee ever captured in Alabama waters when a crew from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Sea World Orlando encircled her in a huge net and hauled her onto the deck of a specially made manatee catching boat.
I was there that day, and I can attest that Ellie, then a sporty 1,200 pounds, did not go into the boat without a fight. If memory serves, she broke out of the net the first time they tried to catch her. A few minutes later, they circled her up again and a mighty fight ensued, with Ellie dragging the Sea World boat and crew up the Spanish River in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. As she was pulled close to the boat, the struggle became more heated. A mighty swoosh of her tail sent a towering sheet of water toward the sky and raining down on the boat.
Once on board, Ellie calmed down and blood and tissue samples were collected. I remember kneeling next to her enormous body and staring into her tiny, moist eyes. Her dimpled skin felt like a wet basketball. She and another manatee captured that day were fitted with identification tags buried in their bodies and turned loose.
But it was Ellie, who had been tagged previously in Florida, that made the news that day. Her capture in Alabama was the first proof that the species regularly migrated from wintering grounds in central Florida to Alabama and back again.
Ellie was captured again a few years later in Dog River. Each time, she was in the company of several other manatees, apparently a sort of traveling tribe. She was known to have given birth to 10 calves since she was first identified in Florida in 1979. That made her at least 39.
Ruth Carmichael, who heads up the Dauphin Island Sea Lab's Manatee Sighting Network, said the cause of Ellie's death was still undetermined, pending results of a necropsy. She did not have obvious wounds from a recent boat strike. At 39, Carmichael said it was unlikely the animal died of old age.
"Not likely. She was essentially middle-aged," Carmichael said. "She was not old by theoretical manatee standards; they have a human lifespan, assuming they don't die of disease or get hit by a boat, etc. In the wild, however, most manatees don't live past 30 and most are found dead at ages younger than 10 years."
Ellie was found by fishermen near the mouth of Dog River, which was known to be one of her favorite haunts.
Most years, a few manatees are found dead in the early winter in Alabama. Usually, they simply failed to begin migrating back to Florida early enough and succumbed to cold winter temperatures. Last year, a tagged manatee named Zewie died in August after being hit by a boat.
"Warm season manatee mortality is unusual in Alabama waters," explained DISL Senior Marine Scientist Ruth H. Carmichael. "We have had only a few, and the causes of death have ranged from natural to watercraft-related injury."
The last time Ellie was captured she weighed 1,600 pounds and was 11 feet long, which Carmichael said was quite large for a manatee in the wild.
Dianne Ingram of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Alabama Field office in Daphne, caught the first confirmed sighting of Ellie in Alabama.
"Ellie was the first manatee I ever saw in Alabama, from the video I shot in 2007, and from which all of the manatee awareness and research since then in Alabama bloomed," Ingram said.
It is clear the animals have been returning to Alabama in larger and larger numbers, year by year. I first saw a manatee in Alabama waters in 2002, when three showed up in a canal on the western shore of Mobile Bay. The next year, I got a few more calls about manatee sightings, and encountered several myself in Fish River. I routinely encounter five or six groups of manatees every summer traveling around the bay, the Delta, and along the Intracoastal Waterway. Spotter planes routinely document as many as 70 manatees in and around Mobile Bay and the Delta any given summer day.
"It is always difficult to lose an endangered species, but Ellie is especially significant because she was a known reproductive female who was a key link between populations and habitats in Alabama and Florida," Carmichael said. "While it is not yet known whether Ellie's mortality is related to watercraft or any other human contact, the public is reminded to please observe manatees from a safe distance (at least 100 feet). Chasing, following, swimming with, touching or in any way changing manatees' natural behavior is considered harassment."
If you see a manatee or think a manatee is distressed or in danger, please report your sighting as soon as possible to DISL/MSN (1-866-493-5803). Visit the Manatee Sighting Network here.