Jessica: They are massive, gentle and they are endangered. Manatees, marine mammals that can grow 13-feet long and weigh 4,000 pounds.
Virginia Edmonds: Don’t have a mean bone in their body and they are unique to Florida.
Jessica: Fewer than 5,000 exist, squeezed out of their natural habitats by human development. Powerboat propellers have cut some of them in half. Now manatees are facing a new killer. It is this: red tide, a natural algae bloom that has released microscopic toxins. Those toxins cling to the vegetation that the manatees eat. The toxins get into the manatee’s nervous system and can paralyze them. If the manatees can’t come up for air every few minutes, they drown.
This year alone, red tide has killed 181 manatees. A record. The hot zone in Florida stretches 75 miles along the coast from Sarasota south to Ft. Myers.
Florida Fish and Wildlife officers often spend their days scanning Southwest Florida waterways checking for dead or struggling manatees.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Officer: Last year, I believe we only had 32 that were confirmed red tide. This year, we’re well over 100 at this point. You know, usually, you are out here, you’re boating around and you see all these nice live ones enjoying the habitat and everything else and you get the reports and find another one that has deceased. And, of course, it hurts a little bit.
Jessica: Marine Biologist Andy Garrett coordinates the rescue and recovery effort for the state of Florida. One dead manatee after another, usually spotted by boaters, comes to labs like this.
Andy: Some animals that are compromised will actually be rolling at the surface trying to breath. So getting to them before that happens, before they actually can’t get their head above water, is crucial.
Jessica: But the manatees can be saved.
Andy: It’s a very curable situation if we can just get to them.
Jessica: Ten manatees got lucky. They were found in severe distress and, in some cases, unconscious but still alive. They were rushed to Tampa’s Lowery Park Zoo. Virginia Edmonds says the first 24 hours are critical.
Virginia: The animals that we’ve gotten in are incapacitated. 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 some time with them – if it’s 24 hours, 48 hours – just keeping an eye on them so that they don’t drown overnight.
Jessica: So far, all the manatees brought to this hospital have survived. Some will be released into a sanctuary located far away from the red tide.
Scientists expect the red tide to last through spring, but they plan on doing everything they can to rescue as many manatees as possible.