Manatees killed by red tide algae bloom inside the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory.
Tampa, Florida (CBS News) -- Manatees are fighting for their lives in Florida. A
record number have died in the past two months, in a battle against the
very waters they call home.
PHOTOS: Experts fight to save manatees from red tide bloom
Ask any Floridian: manatees
are whiskered icons in the state. They laze in warm waters, grazing on
vegetation and sleeping -- massive mammals that can grow 13 feet long
and weigh two tons, but are as gentle as they are big.
Virginia Edmonds, who directs care for Florida mammals at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, said, "(Manatees) don't have a mean bone in their body and they are unique to Florida."
said encountering a manatee can be a "pretty magical experience" and,
she added, "most people in Florida have run across a manatee at some
But for decades, manatees have been endangered.
Fewer than 5,000 exist, squeezed out of their natural habitats by human
development. Power boat propellers have cut some of them in half. Now
manatees face a new killer.
It's red tide, a natural algae bloom that
has released microscopic toxins that cling to vegetation the manatees
eat. Those toxins get into the manatee's nervous system and paralyze
them. If they can't come up for air every few minutes, they drown.
year alone, red tide has killed 181 manatees, a record. The hot zone
stretches 75 miles along the coast from Sarasota south to Ft. Myers.
But, according to one expert, it's a very curable situation if the manatees can be reached.
biologist Andy Garrett coordinates the rescue and recovery effort for
the state of Florida. One dead manatee after another, usually spotted by
boaters, come to labs.
Garrett said, "Some animals that
are compromised will actually be rolling at the surface trying to
breathe, so getting to them before that happens, before they actually
can't get their head above water, is crucial."
manatees got lucky. They were found in severe distress, but alive and in
some cases unconscious, and rushed to Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. The
manatees are cared for in the intensive care unit of the zoo's manatee
Edmonds says the first 24 hours are critical.
"The animals we've gotten in are incapacitated," she said. "They're sort
of comatose. We have to hold their heads up and they can't take a
breath on their own so we'll spend time with them, if it's 24 or 48
hours, just keeping an eye on them so that they don't drown over night."
News watched a rehab team care for a manatee they call "Bond," a young
male rescued two weeks ago. He needed another injection of antibiotics.
But eight people had to control the flailing patient. He weighs 550
pounds -- small for a manatee.
Edmonds said, "If your head is in the middle of a tail and a head you're in trouble."
a couple of times, she said she's had to just give up. Edmonds said,
"You sort of know when to quit, and you know when you are not going to
be able to continue, and that it is just getting tiring for the
All the manatees brought to the hospital have
survived. On Thursday, four manatees were being released into a
sanctuary that's away from the red tide, which has no end in sight.
Scientists say a period of heavy rains and winds could help disperse it.
But for now, everyone involved expects manatee rescues and recoveries
to go on into spring.