FALMOUTH — A hush fell over the crowd on the western tip of Washburn Island, as a crew of animal rescue experts and volunteers hauled toward the shoreline, pull by steady pull, the corpulent gray creature they’d successfully wrangled into a net.
As the barnacle-speckled male manatee landed on the beach, enveloped by the blue netting, the team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare descended on the docile sea cow like a police special forces unit making an arrest. Immediately, they went to work, assessing the sea mammal’s health and recording his vital signs, as the manatee loudly breathed what may have been a sigh of relief — or perhaps a sign of surrender.
Thursday’s capture of the Cape Cod manatee marked the end of a weeks-long effort to find the wayward touristand pluck him from the cooling ocean waters, before sending him first to a rehabilitation facility in Connecticut, and then back to his natural habitat of Florida.
With autumn beginning, experts had become increasingly concerned the manatee would die.
“Even though the water isn’t too cold here yet, it’s too cold for this animal,” said Katie Moore, IFAW’s director of animal rescue. “I don’t think it would have made it out of here alive.”
Such was the fate, in 2008, of a manatee dubbed “Dennis,” which lingered too long in Cape waters and succumbed to “cold stress,” its organs shutting down, while in transit to Florida.
Sightings of this summer’s manatee, a rare event, first trickled in to the animal welfare group’s headquarters around mid-August.
The manatee, weighing about 1,100 pounds, poked his quarter-sized nostrils up for air in Barnstable, Hyannis, Chatham, Harwich, and most recently, before his capture, Cotuit Bay on Sunday.
But as visitors have left Cape Cod, a sign that fall is near, reports of the plump animal suddenly stopped.
The search had begun to feel like finding “a needle in a haystack.” Then, on Thursday, experts once again had eyes on the manatee. The animal was seen floating in Eel Pond, near Washburn Island. Crews, who had been readily prepared with nets and other equipment to execute his apprehension, were swiftly dispatched.
The IFAW team and volunteers split into small groups on three boats, which launched from the Menauhant Yacht Club. It was there that IFAW had set up a staging area, including a temperature-controlled trailer to transport the manatee to Mystic Aquarium, in Connecticut, where he will begin his recovery.
The team stayed close behind the manatee, coordinating their plans using walkie-talkies, as the boats cut through the bay. Eventually, the animal moved toward the island, where some had gathered to enjoy the remnants of summer.
With the manatee close inshore, crews jumped from their boats and took to the sand. Then, the large “seine net” was cast into the water, encircling the manatee.
Once IFAW workers confirmed the manatee was within the net — they waited for him to come up for a puff of air — they reeled him in. A line of people stood holding smartphones, watching in disbelief.
“We saw all this commotion here. . . . We thought it was [an emergency] practice run, but it turned into the real thing,” said Paul Crawford, a Falmouth resident.
After the algae-pocked manatee, which seemed lethargic, was beached, the team rolled him onto a stretcher, and lugged him — a feat that required at least a dozen people — onto one of the boats, called the “Boss.”
From there, he was brought back to a beach near the staging area and heaved carefully from the boat onto a specialized “marine mammal cart.” He was then wheeled toward the rescue trailer, which would take him to the aquarium once stabilized.
As the initial rush to save the manatee subsided, a sense of relief washed over staff from the animal welfare group. Their mission, which required pooling resources with officials all along the Cape, and down in Florida, was nearly complete.
“Considering the location, and the spur-of-the-moment capture, I thought it was fantastic,” said C.T. Harry, assistant stranding coordinator of IFAW’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team, as he stripped off his gear.
“It was just a real great success story, considering the urgency of this animal needing to get out of here,” he said. “I was really getting worried.”Steve Annear can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.