The manatee hospital at the Lowry Park Zoo has become a M*A*S*H unit, treating casualties lucky enough to survive the red-tide massacre of 2013.
Red tide has devastated the Southwest Florida population of the state’s favorite sea mammal, shattering a 17-year-old record for manatee deaths.
This weekend alone, 25 manatee carcasses were found along the coastal areas of Collier and Lee counties. All the deaths appear to be from red tide, researchers say.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute spokesman Kevin Baxter said the state’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory in St. Petersburg was busy Monday morning performing necropsies on the manatee carcasses recovered this weekend.
“Typically, when we get number of them,” he said, “we work though all of them at once.”
As of Monday, 174 manatee bodies, the victims of red-tide poisoning, have been recovered in Southwest Florida since late last summer when the bloom, scientifically known as Karenia brevis, first appeared near shore. The previous record of 151 manatee deaths was set in 1996.
Over the past 17 years, manatee deaths by red tide vary widely. Some years, there are none, sometimes a few. Never has it been like this.
The dead go to the St. Petersburg lab. Many of the sick go to Lowry Park Zoo.
Since the end of October, a dozen manatees rescued from contaminated Southwest Florida coastal waters were brought to the Tampa zoo, where the manatee rehabilitation center has been humming around the clock.
So far, all of the sick manatees have recovered under the care of zoo’s veterinarians, including five that have arrived over the past two weeks. All were from coastal areas in Lee County.
Zoo keeper Jennifer Galbraith is keeping count.
“The first thing we do, after our veterinary staff takes vitals and blood samples and gives immediate antibiotics and comfort medicines, is to place them in a shallow pool, one-and-half feet deep,” she said. “We support their heads with flotation devices, a pool-noodle-life-jacket setup. One of us stays with them for however long it takes.”
Red-tide-afflicted manatees arrive sometimes with seizures, she said, and it could take hours or more than a day to let the seizures run their course.
“It’s like food poisoning,” she said. “You sort of have to ride it out.”
Galbraith said this red-tide outbreak is the worst she has seen. There are three manatee hospitals in the state; one in Miami, one in Orlando and the Lowry Park Zoo, she said. Sick or injured manatees from Southwest Florida are brought here, she said.
When sick manatees get better, they are kept in captivity. They will be carted back to Southwest Florida only after the red-tide threat is gone, she said.
So the zoo is shipping some healthy manatees to other holding areas, like the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park or SeaWorld, until the red-tide bloom flushes itself out to sea.
There is still room for sick manatees, she said, but zoo officials are trying to make space for more casualties, if they come.
“We’re moving guys when we can,” Galbraith said, “but we still can take more right now without moving anybody. We can stack them up however we have to get them in here.”
The toxic bloom should be disappearing by this time of year, but its throat-scratching, fish-killing presence is still felt along Southwest Florida, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advisory issued late last week.
“Very low to medium concentrations” of red tide algae remains in patchy spots along the shore, the advisory said.
Jason Lenes, research associate with the University of South Florida’s Center for Prediction of Red Tides, said this red tide is among the worst on record.
“It’s a severe bloom,” he said. “It’s lasting a long time, affecting areas from Pinellas to Monroe counties and the Keys.”
Where it will go next, if it goes anywhere, is anybody’s guess, he said.
“As of the last two weeks, there have been strong currents to the south and that’s what we call the export mode,” he said. “It’s washing away and there are dissipated concentrations. But it’s still on satellite imagery in low concentrations along the coast.”
Winds and water currents have been driving the bloom out into the Gulf, away from the shoreline, he said, but a front moving over the state during the next day or so could blow some of the airborne toxins back toward land.
Manatees breathe in toxins just inches above the water and eat sea grass that sometimes is covered with red-tide microbes, and that makes the endangered species front-line victims of the algae, said Katie Tripp, Save the Manatee Club director of science and conservation.
The algae can stick to sea grasses for months after a bloom is washed away, and manatees munching on that grass will continue to get sick or die long after the red-tide threat appears to be gone, she said.
“It’s like having seizure,” Tripp said. “When manatees have seizures what kills them is that they drown. They go to take a breath and sometimes that happens when they are under the water.”
“There are a lot of things we, as managers and human beings, do not have control over,” she said, “and red tide is one of them.