TAMPA, Fla. - There's nothing particularly unique about a manatee swimming around, surfacing for a breath, and nibbling on lettuce.
Except, when it's one of 12 red tide survivors recently brought to Lowry Park Zoo, the simple instincts aren't so simple.
"They'll not be able to lift their head up for a breath which is obviously important for a mammal," said Lowry Park Zoo Animal Care Manager of Florida Mammals Virginia Edmonds. "They can't control anything so they'll open their nostrils under the water."
This year's red tide season is the worst in recorded history. It's already caused 174 manatee deaths, compared to the next highest year, 151 deaths in 1996.
"When that toxin builds up on sea grasses, then manatees will consume those sea grasses and consume the toxins as well," explained Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Spokesman Kevin Baxter. "It's a high number and we're just monitoring the situation and trying to rescue as many as we can."
The treatment is simple. Crews place the manatees in water free of red tide, using pool toys to keep them afloat, while waiting for the neurotoxin to release.
The real challenge is finding them.
Because manatees already move slowly when healthy, it's often hard to spot one that's sick. Eventually, they drown. If found in time, though, some recover in minutes because of a strength for which the gentle giants often don't get credit.
"Manatees can survive a lot. We wouldn't have nearly as many if it wasn't for their incredible ability to heal and want to survive," Edmonds said.
Three red tide survivors will begin the release process Thursday, however, their breeding spots still contain toxic red tide, so they'll stay in a holding area until it clears.
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