Manatee mystery: Sea cow found decapitated in Florida

‘It just seemed like a clean cut,’ witness says

MIAMI – A manatee mystery has South Florida officials scratching their heads after one of the gentle sea cows was found dead, WPLG-TV reported.

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It was a horrific sight, the images graphic and downright disturbing.

Wildlife Biologist Natalie Mahomar was birdwatching at Miami’s Little River with a friend Sunday when they saw it.

“I came over here and I see this giant manatee without a head,” Mahomar told Local 10. “It was very devastating. There were some small pieces, maybe two or three.”

It was the carcass of an adult female manatee that appeared to have been beheaded.

“The head was on the other side of the gate and for sure, that’s what it was,” Mahomar explained. “Because there was an eyeball, and we did see the actual face that was detached from it.”

This was no predator attack.

“It didn’t seem like something had grabbed it, it just seemed like a clean cut,” she said.

The likely culprit, speculates Miami Waterkeeper’s Rachel Silverstein, is South Florida Water Management’s salinity control structure off Northeast 81st Street; flood gates on similar structures have killed scores of manatees in the past.

“Salinity control structures closing on manatees was the second leading cause of deaths of manatees in the state of Florida,” said Silverstein.

Florida’s West Indian Manatees are endangered and are a protected species, so in the late ’90s, the state stepped in to safeguard those structures from killing the gentle giants of the sea.

The gates are supposed to be equipped with a Manatee Protection System; sensors that are activated when those gates are 15% from the fully closed position.

Now, as those gates are closing, if it detects the presence of a manatee those gates are supposed to stop. That leads to a question of whether those sensors were working at the time the manatee Mahomar found was crushed.

The answer is yes, according to SFWMD, which said in a statement:

“FWC is reviewing necropsy findings and other information to determine the cause of death. An examination by SFWMD of the manatee protection feature installed on the S-27 gate determined the feature is functioning properly upon inspection, and we are working with FWC to review the matter.”

So, if the gate and sensors were functioning properly, as South Florida Water Management District said they were, what or who killed the manatee?

“I think it’s sad, but I hope that it refocuses our attention that this river is critical,” said Hugh Gladwin, co-founder of the Little River Conservancy.

After initially releasing that statement, SFWMD later qualified that there was not a report generated from Monday’s test of the manatee sensor, saying instead that the sensors are routinely inspected bi-monthly and that they would provide Local 10 with a report of the last inspection.

Meanwhile, FWC said it expects to have the final result of the necropsy report sometime next week.

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About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.