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Manatees at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, FL. Photo by David Hinkel, USFWS.

‘I had to do something’

Carpenter, others rally to rescue stranded manatees

He was sick of watching the televised radar images, that big red storm heading steadily his way.

With Hurricane Irma still hours south of his Bradenton home, Marcelo Clavijo said he’d had enough.

He turned to a friend. “Let’s go cruise around.”

He grabbed his keys. They jumped in his car to check out parts of Manatee County before a curfew drove everyone indoors.

What they saw turned into an internet sensation showcasing how good things can happen when strangers unite for a common goal.

Clavijo, 46, and a score of others teamed up to save a couple of manatees in the hours before the hurricane hit them. Hurricane Irma’s circular winds and tides had sucked all the water out of Sarasota Bay, leaving two adult Trichechus manatus latirostris stranded.

“A dude came running up and said, ‘There are manatees out there!’” Clavijo recalled Tuesday. “I ran to my car, put on my surf trunks, and charged out there.”

He kept on his flip-flops as Clajivo sprinted over oyster beds. Reaching the grassy flats, he slipped them off and kept going. Mud made squelching noises as he ran.

He reached the first manatee, stopped. The creature, said Clavijo, appeared to be crying; big tears glistened in its eyes. “It looked like it had given up,” Clavijo said “I’d never seen anything like it.”

Others clustered around the stricken animal. One guy had a small tarp, but it couldn’t accommodate the sea cow, which weighed at least 800 pounds. Another rescuer ran home and soon returned with a larger tarp.

Everyone leaned, grunted, pushed. The manatee rolled over twice and lay in the middle of the tarp.

Everyone grabbed an edge of the tarp “and just ran,” Clavijo said. “It slid pretty good on the mud and grass.”

The rescuers pulled the manatee to a boat channel, maybe 50 yards away, which still held water. They tilted the tarp. The big animal rolled off. Splash!

The second rescue was identical to the first: lean, grunt, push, run. That animal was about 75 yards from the channel. It swam away – just in time, too: Authorities set a curfew for 3 p.m., and the clock was ticking.

Clavijo and the others retraced their steps, reached their rides and got indoors before Irma came roaring into their part of Florida.

They also achieved some online fame: Clavijo and his friend made a video of the rescue. He posted it to Facebook. Friends and strangers shared it. TV stations and newspapers picked it up.

The world, it seemed, suddenly knew about the rescue.

The story became the sort of tale people need to hear in the midst of so much bad news. Strangers, standing in the mud, straining over creatures so large and helpless: Clavijo’s quick video may pack as much power as the hurricane itself,

Clavijo’s reaction? A native Floridian – “I have played and swam in that bay all my life” – is a carpenter, not a story-teller. But he’s glad he was there.

“I was just waiting for the hurricane,” he said. “When I saw [the manatees] I knew I had to do something,”

This story was updated on September 12, 2017 after public affairs specialist Mark Davis was able to interview Mr. Clavijo.


Mark Davis, Public Affairs Specialist

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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