UF drone team helping in manatee rescues

Manatee rescue

Drone view of attempted encircling of a manatee with a net in a dark retention pond. The manatee is to the left of the center net. Note the number of people involved; personnel are placed in a john boat and kayaks for tracking and chasing the manatee, while other personnel are placed in the water to make splashing sounds in the water. The goal is to have the manatee stay away from the open net area and move toward the area where the net could close around him. (Photo courtesy of UF’s Aquatic Animal Health program)

Rescuing manatees and dolphins is an “ocean” of work and coordination. When an animal strands, rescuing officials must deal with challenging environments such as weather, water clarity, vegetation and accessibility. Rescues can be time-consuming, involving dozens of people from many organizations and lots of equipment to perform each rescue safely and efficiently.

The beginning of a rescue is all about safely capturing the animal.

“It starts with first locating and following the animal,” said Dr. Mike Walsh, a clinical associate professor of aquatic animal health at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine. “Everyone is scanning the water for evidence of a nose surfacing to breathe or a trail left by a moving paddle while the manatee is trying to stay hidden. Once the animal is found, then nets are positioned for capture. All of these initial tasks are reliant on eye-level views.”

As new field technology tools become more available, rescuers and researchers are also investigating how to apply these innovations to help with the work they are doing. Drones have recently moved to the forefront as a key tool for a view and guide from above with wildlife observation and research.

“Having responded with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s manatee rescue team to a number of manatees trapped in isolated areas, it seemed like we could improve the response to locating the animals,” Walsh said.

Walsh and Laurie Adler, a biological scientist with UF’s aquatic animal health team, approached John Rouse, drone program coordinator in the UF’s Environmental Health and Safety Division’s Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, to see if a drone could help pinpoint the animals’ location and aid in the response during a rescue. The drone program requires the use of drones at UF to follow strict safety and federal guidelines just like any pilot would as well as requiring a license from the FAA.

The first drone application to rescues started with a repeat of manatees getting trapped in retention ponds in Oldsmar, Florida, after storms and high water. Working with Rouse and his drone, the UF team joined FWC’s rescue team, led by Andy Garrett and Martine de Wit, along with participants from Zoo Tampa and Clearwater Marine Aquarium to try to find and catch the elusive manatees in dark muddy water which spanned over four connecting retention ponds.

“Deploying the nets in a usual semicircle around the animals was not working well, often chasing the animals to another area resulting in repeated long delays in trying to relocate them,” Walsh said.

“Using the drone, Rouse showed that we could see the manatees even in muddy water moving away from the nets and boats, hiding and actively avoiding the capture team, sometimes even following behind them,” he said. “The drone helped the rescue teams search the large areas more efficiently, locating them where the human eye was limited by distance, reflection and water clarity.”

Now the rescue teams can observe the animal’s behavior and how it responds to various capture techniques and peoples’ interactions, improving the future application of the standard techniques, Adler said.

“In the live scenario, the drone was able to help the team quickly modify the plan based on what the animal was doing, saving responder time and resources and improving the overall rescue response,” she said.

The information and video footage gained using the drone is then shared with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and FWC as they design protocols for future drone use.

“The information that has been collected so far with four drone responses and the collaboration of EHS shows just how incredibly advantageous drone usage is going to be for helping and studying aquatic animals,” Adler said. “It is also a great training tool for evaluation and teaching of net techniques in the classroom.”

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