Deputies in the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office's (PCSO) Marine and Environmental Lands Unit do more than just enforce boating laws — they're also tasked with protecting the county's numerous preserves, as well as the wildlife that inhabits them. A newsletter released today from PCSO highlights the efforts of Deputy Jill Constant and her recent quest to rescue a dying manatee.
According to the newsletter, the event occurred a few weeks ago when red tide levels were high. Deputy Constant had received a call from a concerned woman who spotted a manatee that appeared to be struggling in the Intracoastal Waterway.
As soon as the PCSO Marine and Environmental Lands Unit arrived on the scene, Constant stated that it was clear the manatee was in distress.
“We’re watching it, and it will not go underwater." said Constant, "It just stayed at the surface with labored breathing.”
As they watched the exhausted manatee's desperate attempt to beach itself on the rocks so it wouldn't drown, Deputy Constant knew she had to intervene.
"This manatee is going to die right in front of us and I'm not letting that happen!" Constant recounted. “We docked the boat, I took off my equipment and got in. We stayed in the water for two hours holding its head up until it could be rescued.”
According to Constant, the manatee wasn't too thrilled about the rescue mission.
“At the end of the process, it was not happy with us! At the beginning, it was too exhausted, but after a while, it had recovered its strength a little and it started thrashing. I thought I was going to drown — a martyr for the cause.”
Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) later responded to the scene; it was determined that the manatee would make a full recovery.
Deputy Constant says her passion for wildlife is what pushed her to join the Marine and Environmental Lands Unit. She was originally wanting to work for FWC or to be a game warden in another state, but ultimately decided her heart belonged to Florida, as well as to the unique opportunity to not only enforce fishing laws but to also help wildlife with PCSO's Marine Unit.
As a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, manatees are especially in need of protection. According to U.S Fish and Wildlife, the world's population of manatees is estimated to be about 13,000 — approximately 6,000 of which live in Florida.
Morality data from 2022 states that approximately 800 manatees died that year from boating strikes, red tide events, or starvation as a result of habitat destruction, with starvation and malnutrition being the leading causes.
However, most manatees, even young ones, have been seen with visible propeller marks from boat contact. FWC compared 10 years of information in a study and found that about 96% of manatees had propeller scars.
It's estimated that about 25% of yearly manatee deaths are a result of colliding with boats and other watercraft. Deputy Constant says that special zones within the Intracoastal Waterway regulate speeds to help keep manatees safer from boat strikes.
“It’s a slow speed minimum wake in the manatee areas,” Constant said. “Some of the manatee speeds are year-round, such as the one at John’s Pass. In other areas, such as just south of the Corey Causeway, the manatee speeds are in effect April 1 through October 31.”
To travel at slow speed minimum wake is to have a vessel completely off-plane, fully settled in the water, and producing little to no wake behind it.
Manatees are gentle, usually friendly creatures; while they often will approach swimmers and boaters, know that it is illegal to touch them, and can even be a felony depending on the degree. Anything that may interfere with the manatee's natural, wild behaviors can lead them to be in more danger.
To learn more about Deputy Jill Constant and to read the story in full, check out Pinellas County Sheriff's Office's Bi-Weekly Newsletter, Inside The Star here.
Article by Rachael Volpe