Published: Dec 10, 2010 11:50 PM EST
Updated: Dec 10, 2010 8:40 PM EST

The extended and extreme winter of 2010 proved to be a killer.   The cold weather claimed the lives of a record number of manatees.

"It  is devastating, and I am sad, I am sad," said Maija Gadient, a volunteer at Manatee Park in Lee County.    "I worry for the manatees, they are gentle giants, they hurt no one."

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says 699 manatees died in 2010, up until Dec. 5.   More than half died from cold stress or cold-related problems.   That is by far the highest death toll since scientists began keeping records of manatee mortality in 1974.    in 2009, by comparison, 429 manatees died, only a few from cold stress.

"It is bad to hear, but I can tell you that the manatees here at the park are doing well.  They have discovered the warm waters, and they come back and give birth to calves.   We  can't control the weather, just hope that the sea cows survive this coming winter," said Dan Bergstresser, director of Manatee Park for Lee County Parks and Recreation.   The Fl. Power and Light Plant along the Caloosahatchee River releases steam and warm waters into the canals and lagoons that run to the Manatee Park.    Some of the sea cows tend to gather in those warm waters during cold weather.

He also stressed that boaters should never feed manatees or dump fresh water on them.   The animals are looking for food and fresh water, so they will lose any fear of boats, and come near the propellors, looking for more food and water.   The propellors can injure or kill the manatees.