TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Virginia Edmonds, standing in shallow water, used her legs to slowly nudge an ailing young manatee to one side of a treatment pool. A half dozen other female members of a manatee rehabilitation team hovered close by - one with a syringe - waiting for the signal.
“OK!” Edmonds called, as the others jumped in and threw a mat over the manatee to try and hold it still.
The 545-pound (247-kg) mammal bucked, thrashed, rolled and tossed the women off before they could inject an antibiotic; just one minor challenge in an effort to rescue and treat members of this endangered species that are dying in record numbers from an algae bloom.
The so-called Red Tide algae bloom has killed a total of 181 manatees so far this year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
That figure already surpasses the highest number of Red Tide manatee deaths on record - 151 in 1996 - and experts expect the number to keep rising through the spring.
“We’ll probably have Red Tide victims several more months,” said Dr. Larry Killmar, head of animal science and conservation at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, which is home to the manatee rehab team.
So far 12 rescued manatees have been brought in for treatment from Red Tide poisoning.
“We’re not even getting a chance to work on many of them,” Killmar said of the large number of deaths. “If we can get them early enough, we can save them.”
The problem, Killmar and other experts note, was Florida’s warm winter, which appears to have sparked an earlier-than- normal algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico along a 70-mile (112-km) swath of southwest Florida’s coast, home to a large share of the state’s estimated 5,000 manatees.
The naturally occurring algae that blooms into Red Tide carries toxins that are usually inhaled by manatees when they come up for air, typically every 20 minutes. But now they animals are also ingesting the toxins when they eat, after the Red Tide saturated sea grasses the manatees graze on, Killmar said.
The toxins spark seizures and paralyze the manatees, which struggle to breathe or surface for air - causing them to drown.
Most of the victims have been found in coastal rivers in the area of Fort Myers.
“Most are passed out when they come in,” said Edmonds, the animal care manager of Florida mammals at Lowry Park Zoo. After they are brought in by a rescue team from the wildlife conservation commission, the manatees immediately receive an injection of the anti-toxin atropine and the first of three possible antibiotic injections.
For the past few weeks, staff members in the zoo’s manatee hospital stood in shallow pool waters around the clock to help keep the manatees’ heads above water.
“One woke up in 15 minutes,” Edmonds said. Others take hours, possibly depending on the length of time they were exposed to Red Tide.
To make room for more critical care patients, two recovered manatees were sent to Sea World last week and three other Red Tide survivors are headed to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park this week.
The animals cannot be released back into the wild until the Red Tide dissipates because they will migrate back to the same area and become sick once again.
Meanwhile, the others will stay at the zoo’s manatee hospital with several other resident patients recovering from a mixture of ailments, including boat strikes, which are one of the biggest killers of manatees.
They manatees will be monitored and continue to get follow-up antibiotic injections like the one Edmonds and her team were trying to administer to a feisty 2-year-old male manatee on Wednesday.
About 20 zoo spectators had gathered to watch the unexpected display, holding up cameras and placing toddlers on their shoulders to see.
“I want to help,” 9-year-old Ben Arnett of Englewood, Florida, whispered to his brother, 11-year-old Josh, an aspiring marine biologist.
Normally it is against state law to touch, chase, harass and - in one recent notorious case that unleashed public outrage and brought criminal charges - to ride manatees. But now fast-thinking residents are playing a critical role in saving them - holding their heads above the water until rescuers arrive.
The state released a hotline number for residents to call if they see a distressed manatee. “If they didn’t have people in the public trying to help,” said Lee Ann Rottman, the zoo’s animal curator, “those manatees wouldn’t make it.”
Editing by David Adams, Eric Walsh and Dan Grebler