LEE COUNTY, Fla. - The number of manatee deaths in the state of Florida continues to rise at an alarming rate and wildlife officials say red tide is largely to blame. It's been so deadly this year, we're on track the break the record of 151 red tides deaths set back in 1996. We spent some time on the Orange River with Florida Fish and Wildlife as they plucked carcasses out of the water, one-by-one.
Often when the gulf water temperature cools down, manatees travel up the river to seek warmer water. It's a spectacle that draws thousands to Fort Myers every year, giving them an up-close look at Florida's gentle sea cows.
But this year, the sights aren't always pleasing. Florida Fish and Wildlife Officers often spend their days scanning southwest Florida waterways, checking for dead or struggling manatees.
"Last year, we only had 32 confirmed red tide death, this year, we have well over 100," Officer Brad Bell said. The current red tide bloom is affecting 70 miles of coastline from Sarasota through mid-Lee County. So far this year, FWC reports 149 red tide-related manatee deaths in the state, 127 of those in Lee County.
Visitors stood silently as officers pulled five mammals from the Orange River.
"This is the first time I've ever seen one pulled out," Susan Johannes said. "I'm really sorry about it and I hope they do more for the manatees."
We went out on the boat with the officers, and it wasn't long before they found sixth manatee floating lifelessly.
"Usually, you are out here, boating around, ,you see all these nice live ones enjoying the habitat and everything else," Bell said, "and you get the reports and find another that is deceased. Of course it hurts a little bit ."
For these manatees, it's too late. But for those that officers are able to rescue, there's hope. "at last count, ninety-nine percent of ones we are able to get out of the water, into trucks and up to the Tampa Zoo, have made it successfully."
If you do encounter a dead or distressed manatee, you're advised not to touch it or interact with it. Instead, call FWC's Wildlife Alert at the number, 1-888-404-3922. They'll immediately send an officer out to your location.