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    Boater hits, kills pregnant manatee

    Ragtail, whose name came from an earlier boat encounter, suffered broken ribs and shattered vertebrae as wells as propeller cuts.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- A speeding boater killed a pregnant manatee found this weekend off Picnic Island near MacDill Air Force Base in Hillsborough County, authorities said.

    Ragtail was something of a celebrity among Tampa Bay's 300 or so endangered manatees.

    Studied for years by the Florida Marine Research Institute, Ragtail was pictured on the Save the Manatee Club's Web site as one of five Tampa Bay manatees available for "adoption," the main fundraising effort by the environmental organization.

    Hundreds of people had adopted Ragtail, estimated Manatee Club Executive Director Judith Vallee.

    Veteran angler Bob Smith, 51, of Plant City, witnessed Ragtail's demise.

    About 2 p.m. Saturday, Smith saw a 20- or 25-foot boat with a cabin shooting through the shallow sea grass beds west of the runway lights off MacDill.

    He wondered whether the boater realized manatees congregated in the area, then he saw the boat hit something and make a sudden turn toward deeper water.

    When Smith steered his mullet boat, the Miss Dee, to the spot where the boater had turned, he saw something bloody in the water.

    He radioed wildlife officials and held the dying manatee for a while, he said.

    "She stayed up about 15 minutes," he said. "Then she finally rolled over on her back . . .. I knew she wasn't going to make it."

    The 2,500-pound manatee then sank, he said.

    When wildlife officers arrived a little later, they were unable to locate the carcass at first, but it floated to the surface a day later.

    Ragtail's name came from a previous encounter with a boat propeller, which slashed the manatee's tail in four or five places, said Jessie Smith of the marine institute.

    A necropsy performed Monday at the marine institute's pathology laboratory on the Eckerd College campus found 15 deep propeller cuts, Smith said, as well as broken ribs and shattered vertebrae.

    "Tampa Bay is totally unregulated for manatee protection," Vallee contended. Regulations that exist now are voluntary, she said, "and that's not good enough."

    Boat collisions are the leading cause of manatee deaths, accounting for 78 deaths last year.

    Half of the slow-moving manatees killed by boats die from being hit by boat hulls and half from being slashed by propellers, biologists say.

    Interested?

    To see a picture of Ragtail and view information on the Adopt-A-Manatee program click on: www.savethemanatee.org/adoptpag.htm.

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