BARNSTABLE — If there were a mass alert system for finding manatees, C.T. Harry would surely use it.
For the past few days, Harry, who works for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, has been joined by volunteers in searching for the massive sea cow that has lingered too long here.
It’s “all hands on deck,” said Harry as he steered a motorboat in Cotuit Bay. Experts are prepared to pluck the portly creature out of the cooling ocean and return it to sunny Florida.
But first, they’ll need to actually find the elusive animal — a task, he explained, that’s harder than it seems.
“It’s just really a needle in the haystack right now,” he said, scanning the water. “The animal, literally, could be anywhere.”
Since mid-August, IFAW has fielded numerous reports about the manatee appearing along Nantucket Sound. The roughly 8-foot-long creature, which remains nameless, and has not been identified as a male or female, has brought its two quarter-sized nostrils to the surface for air and greeted unsuspecting beachgoers in Barnstable, Hyannis, Chatham, Harwich, and, most recently, Cotuit Bay, where it was seen Sunday bobbing near Ropes Beach.
At first, for many it was charming: A plump sea creature had puttered north for the summer and was exploring the Cape like any curious tourist.
But for Harry and the IFAW team, the visitor’s extended stay has become serious business.
“It was, ‘Oh, that’s great!’” he said. Then, as fall neared, it became, “‘Oh, great. What are we going to do?’”
As summer winds down, and the water temperature begins to quickly drop, time is of the essence.
The manatee has scant chance of survival if it hangs around. It could die from “cold stress,” its organs eventually shutting down. Such was the fate of a manatee named “Dennis” in 2008, after it stayed too long in Cape waters. That manatee died on its way to a rehabilitation facility in Florida.
“It’s extremely important” that the animal be caught, said Harry, as he steered the small inflatable boat, sunglasses propped on his nose.
“This animal needs to be out of here yesterday,” said Harry, who is assistant stranding coordinator for IFAW’s marine mammal rescue and research group. “The window for the animal to be healthy enough to survive is drastically shrinking.”
In recent days, while balancing their typical duties of rescuing dolphins and responding to reports of other stranded sea animals, Harry and a legion of animal experts have been mapping the manatee’s movements, and drafting a plan to capture it and safely escort it to a critical care facility at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.
Once the manatee is deemed in good health, it would then likely be hauled by airplane back to its southern haunts.
Harry and his group have received permission from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which has jurisdiction over manatees, an endangered species, to carry out the rescue mission.
“As soon as we sight it, we want to roll, because of the urgency of trying to get this animal out of here,” he said.
Ashley Barratclough, a veterinarian from the Dallas World Aquarium who has experience with manatee rescue and rehabilitation, was called to assist with the capture.
She said there were two ways it could happen.
First, if the manatee is seen feeding close to shore, rescuers could execute a land-based capture, where they would physically pull it up, using a net, onto the beach, before loading it into a special transport vehicle.
The second option would require snagging it in a net while it’s swimming in deeper water, and then carefully dragging it onto a boat, she said.
“We are absolutely ready to go at this point,” said Barratclough. “We just need to find the manatee.”
One would think that finding it would be simple.
The gray, puffy-looking mammals can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, and have enormous spoon-like tails that do not resemble the back flippers of a common seal. They’re also not known for being the speediest species beneath the ocean waves. They lumber along like the Eeyores of the deep sea, hugging the shoreline to feast on vegetation.
But with fewer people vacationing on Cape Cod, sightings have become scarcer, Harry said. Rain showers and cloudy skies at the start of the week also kept IFAW from using spotter pilots to get an aerial view.
And because manatees grow “algae mats” on their backs, from being relatively sedentary beasts — Harry called them “floating couches’’ — it’s easy for them to blend in with the dark-green bay waters.
Still, those concerned about the animal’s well-being have been out in full force.
Harry took his boat out off Barnstable Tuesday near where the last sighting occurred, and watched for the animal’s head and back bulging from the ocean’s surface. On his vessel were three interns, equipped with a radio and binoculars, who reacted to every ripple in the water. Other searchers paddled the coast in kayaks.
Earlier, volunteers in blue shirts and hats bearing IFAW’s logo had explored estuaries and coves, walking uncharted paths that snaked along marshy inlets, looking for any sign of the manatee munching on sea grass. They inspected beaches and docks, and asked strangers if they had noticed anything out of the ordinary.
No, people replied, they hadn’t seen it.
IFAW also sent out a notice on Twitter, asking anyone on the Cape to stay alert. They stressed that the animal is in danger.
“Need to move to warmer waters!” the group warned, providing a hotline number.
The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a non-profit studying the white shark population off Cape Cod with state biologists, even digressed from its usual Facebook posts about shark taggings, and asked their social media followers for assistance.
“Help needed!” the group wrote in a post that included a picture of an earlier sighting of the manatee. “Water temperatures are getting too low for [the manatee].”
With the assistance of harbormasters, pilots, and volunteers up and down the coast, the search is expected to continue through the week.
“This is like a missing persons alert,” said Harry.
“We’ve got to find it first, before we can, obviously, get it out of here,” he said. “And I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that.”