Tampa, Florida (CBS News) -- Manatees are fighting for their lives in Florida. Arecord number have died in the past two months, in a battle against thevery waters they call home.
Ask any Floridian: manateesare whiskered icons in the state. They laze in warm waters, grazing onvegetation and sleeping -- massive mammals that can grow 13 feet longand 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."
Edmondssaid encountering a manatee can be a "pretty magical experience" and,she added, "most people in Florida have run across a manatee at somepoint."
But for decades, manatees have been endangered.Fewer than 5,000 exist, squeezed out of their natural habitats by humandevelopment. Power boat propellers have cut some of them in half. Nowmanatees face a new killer.
It's red tide, a natural algae bloom thathas released microscopic toxins that cling to vegetation the manateeseat. Those toxins get into the manatee's nervous system and paralyzethem. If they can't come up for air every few minutes, they drown.
Thisyear alone, red tide has killed 181 manatees, a record. The hot zonestretches 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.
Marinebiologist Andy Garrett coordinates the rescue and recovery effort forthe state of Florida. One dead manatee after another, usually spotted byboaters, come to labs.
Garrett said, "Some animals thatare compromised will actually be rolling at the surface trying tobreathe, so getting to them before that happens, before they actuallycan't get their head above water, is crucial."
Tenmanatees got lucky. They were found in severe distress, but alive and insome cases unconscious, and rushed to Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. Themanatees are cared for in the intensive care unit of the zoo's manateehospital.
Edmonds says the first 24 hours are critical."The animals we've gotten in are incapacitated," she said. "They're sortof comatose. We have to hold their heads up and they can't take abreath on their own so we'll spend time with them, if it's 24 or 48hours, just keeping an eye on them so that they don't drown over night."
CBSNews watched a rehab team care for a manatee they call "Bond," a youngmale rescued two weeks ago. He needed another injection of antibiotics.But eight people had to control the flailing patient. He weighs 550pounds -- small for a manatee.
Edmonds said, "If your head is in the middle of a tail and a head you're in trouble."
Anda 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 tobe able to continue, and that it is just getting tiring for themanatee."
All the manatees brought to the hospital havesurvived. On Thursday, four manatees were being released into asanctuary 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 recoveriesto go on into spring.