Last month, a rare manatee -- an endangered species generally found in Florida -- somehow made its way into the heart of the Ninth Ward, say officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
And as tugs waited to use the New Orleans Industrial Canal Lock to cross between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, the gentle, seal-like mammal, estimated to measure as much as 8 feet long, quietly munched on the algae along the chamber wall of the lock.
Michael O'Dowd, lockmaster of the Inner Harbor Navigational Harbor, says he and lockman Robert Kelly were standing by the lock at about 10:30 a.m. Monday, July 9, when the manatee surfaced.
"We heard a movement in the water and we turned around and we caught a glimpse of this large object," recalls O'Dowd, a 36-year veteran of the Corps. "Well, we thought it was a alligator. We stood there watching and sure enough, it made a movement like a whale. It turned its back and it's tail went up. And I said, 'Man, that's a manatee.'"
Other employees gathered around to see the rare mammal that office assistant Carli Fried nicknamed "Nessie," after Scotland's fabled Loch Ness Monster. After a while, several tugs and their tows were lined up, ready to use the lock. Paul Malone, a head lock operator who says he never saw a manatee in his previous career as a U.S. merchant seaman, then asked the vessels to proceed through the lock at dead slow speed.
O'Dowd says Nessie either entered the Ninth Ward lock by way of the lake or the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Experts say manatees are found in coastal waterways, estuaries, saltwater bays, rivers and canals, and spend most of their time eating up to 150 pounds of vegetation a day. The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal.
"We made about three lockings with the manatee going back and forth from one side of the lock to the other," O'Dowd says. "Then all of a sudden, we opened the gates to the lake and we never saw it anymore. It was the weirdest thing."