Nineteen manatees were rescued from a drainage system in Florida after a 10-hour mission that involved digging up a portion of roadway and sawing open a large pipe.
The mission could be one of the largest manatee rescues on record, said Brandon Basino, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
"Manatee rescues happen often throughout the state, but it's usually one, sometimes it's a mother-and-calf pair," Basino said. "Our biologists were aware of no other circumstance where 19 manatees were rescued in one instance."
The search for manatees was thorough, said Satellite Beach Fire Chief Don Hughes, whose department helped with the rescue.
"We had personnel going down through these storm drain systems and going as far as they could and using flashlights," he said. "We did have one area that was too small for us, so we utilized a fiber-optic camera that was 200 feet long, and we sent the camera down the pipe that way.
"We feel confident that everything has been accounted for," Hughes said.
A biologist's intuition initiated the rescue in Satellite Beach, which started Monday afternoon.
"During this time of year, manatees seek out warm water habitats, especially after cold fronts, and we've had two in Florida back to back," Basino said.
Biologists checked a box culvert, near the Satellite Beach City Hall, and initially found four manatees, including a mother and calf. The box culvert drains into the Indian River Lagoon.
Satellite Beach is about 68 miles east of Orlando.
It took an hour to rescue the mother, who was almost on top of her calf, Hughes said.
After the first discovery, rescuers started to pull up manhole covers on Cassia Street, and found more and more manatees. The commission estimates that some of the manatees were found 200 to 300 yards from the Indian River Lagoon.
Most had sustained minor injuries, cuts and scrapes from being in the culvert, Basino said.
Rescue crews, which included the Satellite Beach Police Department; Sea World; Blackwater Divers, a commercial company that specializes in challenging projects; and members of the Patrick Air Force Base, used slings to lift the heavy mammals one by one out of the drainage system.
Manatees, which are sometimes known as sea cows, can weigh as much as 1,300 pounds.
"It took a village and an Air Force Base," said Ann Spellman, a manatee biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission who was first on the scene.
By 2 a.m. Tuesday, all of the manatees had been rescued. All were given brief health examinations and then released. Biologists from the commission will check up on the rescued animals in the coming days.