Every year, red tides happen when large concentration of certain algae bloom a reddish brown color. In especially algae-dense areas, this makes water appear to be a discolored, murky red or green color. Harmful algal blooms can also be related to the production of natural toxins, depletion of oxygen in water, and other events that cause problems for wildlife.
This year, a red tide just off the southwest coast of Florida is wreaking havoc on the manatee population there. An endangered species unique to Florida, a record 181 manatees have been killed by the effects of the red tide in the past two months. There are just 5,000 manatees in existence today, the population having been devastated by human presence in their natural habitats.
Red tides naturally occur every year, but this year has lasted particularly long. A toxin present in the current red tide has been the cause of the manatee deaths. The toxin clings to vegetation in the water, which is the manatees’ main source of food. When the toxin is ingested, it paralyzes the manatee, who must come up every few minutes for air.
“They have an inability to get to the surface to take breaths, and so therefore they have the propensity to drown,” said Trevor Gerlach of the Florida Aquarium. But it’s not incurable, and if manatees can be found before they drown, they can be saved. In some cases, manatees have been found rolling around near the surface trying to breathe.
“The animals we’ve gotten in are incapacitated,” said Virginia Edmonds of the Tampa Lowery Park Zoo. “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 overnight.” So far about a dozen manatees have been saved and re-released into a red-tide-free sanctuary.