A powerful red tide bloom in southwest Florida is proving to be an epidemic for the state's manatee population. Just this year, 174 manatees have been killed from red tide-related illness.
"When the toxins build up on sea grasses, the manatees consume the sea grasses and consume the toxins as well," said Florida Fish & Wildlife Spokesperson Kevin Baxter.
A lucky few have been plucked from the poisonous environment, and they're finding help here in Tampa. A dozen have been rescued and taken straight to Lowry Park Zoo's Manatee Hospital.
"What we see with the animals is seizing. They'll have a lot of uncontrollable twitching," Lowry Park Zoo Animal Care Manager Virginia Edmonds said Tuesday.
The toxins cause manatees to become temporarily paralyzed.
"They'll not be able to lift their head up for a breath, which is obviously important to a mammal," Edmonds said.
Vets use pool toys to keep manatees' heads above water while they heal. It takes a team of about ten to give a manatee it's medications, but so far, they have a 100 percent success rate.
"We had one come in, and 15 minutes later it was swimming around in the pool," Edmonds smiled.
Right now, Lowry Park is packed with 14 manatees, 10 of them sick from red tide. They are all recovering well and one day will be released back into the wild. Experts say it's thanks to a resilience unique to the gentle giants.
"We wouldn't have nearly as many if it weren't for their incredible ability to heal and want to survive," Edmonds said.
Once the manatees at Lowry Park Zoo's Manatee Hospital are rehabilitated, they'll be transferred to a closed area near Crystal River. Once the red tide bloom in southwest Florida clears, the manatees will be released into the wild. They can't release them until the bloom clears because manatees are wired to naturally return to their home with they're displaced.
Red tide taking record toll on manatees: