Manatee rescuers struggle for animals' survival amid red tide

(CBS News) In Florida, manatees are fighting for their lives. A record number have died in the past two months, in a battle against the very waters they call home.

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 Lowery Park Zoo, said, "(Manatees) don't have a mean bone in their body and they are unique to Florida."

Edmonds said encountering a manatee can be a "pretty magical experience" and, she added, "most people in Florida have run across a manatee at some point."

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.

This 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.

Marine 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."

Ten manatees got lucky. They were found in severe distress, but alive and in some cases unconscious, and rushed to Tampa's Lowery Park Zoo. The manatees are cared for in the intensive care unit of the zoo's manatee hospital.

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."

CBS 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."

And 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 manatee."

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.

Watch Mark Strassmann's full "CBS This Morning" report in the video above.

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