Rescuing manatees from Florida's red tide

A manatee at Tampa's Lowery Park Zoo.
A manatee at Tampa's Lowery Park Zoo.

(CBS News) TAMPA, Fla. - The manatee was barely breathing when rescuers found him -- a victim of the red tide outbreak along Florida's west coast that has killed 207 manatees in the last three months.

He was brought to Tampa's Lowery Park Zoo, where Virginia Edmonds directs one of the state's critical care hospital for manatees.

"When you do find them it's almost too late. They're out there struggling. They're going to end up drowning," said Edmonds.

Red tide algae, which occurs naturally, releases microscopic poisons that cling to the vegetation manatees eat.

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These toxins get into their nervous systems, paralyze them and the mammals drown. But so far, the zoo has rescued 13 sick manatees and they've all survived.

For the first 24-48 hours, getting them to breathe is the priority.

As they're mammals and can't breathe underwater, it's important to make sure they don't spin around in the pool and end up on their backs with their noses underwater, where they can't lift their heads.

Virginia Edmonds directs one of Florida's critical care hospitals for manatees.
Virginia Edmonds directs one of Florida's critical care hospitals for manatees.

The manatees are treated with antibiotics to prevent any infections. Because manatees are large creatures, they can be dangerous to handle.

Four manatees that recently got well again were transferred to a sanctuary. Two were taken to Sea World.

Although the red tide threatening these gentle giants is finally starting to ease, the offshore manatee watch continues.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.