SeaWorld Orlando becomes ER for manatees stricken by red tide

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The 455-pound patient was rushed to the emergency room in a stupor.

Molly Martony, a veterinarian at SeaWorld Orlando, was making her usual rounds when the call came in on Wednesday afternoon: Another manatee sick from red tide was coming in.

The animal rescue facility tucked in the behind-the-scenes part of the theme park has been bombarded with sick manatees from the toxic algae bloom that has plagued the state for months from South Florida to Tampa Bay and this week reached the Panhandle.

 Molly Martony, a veterinarian in residence at the University of Florida, right, takes a blood sample to diagnosis a sick manatee that is non-responsive after being pulled from red tide-afflicted waters in Sarasota. Hydration could help the animal recover within 24 hours. (Courtesy of SeaWorld Orlando)

Molly Martony, a veterinarian in residence at the University of Florida, right, takes a blood sample to diagnosis a sick manatee that is non-responsive after being pulled from red tide-afflicted waters in Sarasota. Hydration could help the animal recover within 24 hours. (Courtesy of SeaWorld Orlando)

Wednesday’s rescue is the 15th manatee stricken by red tide during an already record-breaking year of caring for 55 sea cows — the most SeaWorld has ever had in one year, and it’s only September. The rest of the manatees were treated for injuries being run over by boats and other ailments.

“It’s always a busy day,” says Martony, who tries to stay level-headed when the adrenaline kicks in.

As red tide spreads and kills more animals, emergency rescuers fear their workload will only rise.

In Sarasota — a city where retirees and vacationers come to lay on the white-sand beaches and swim in the warm Gulf waters — the red tide has washed millions of dead fish and other marine life on the beach. Reports from the Panhandle on Wednesday said the toxic algae, which can sicken humans, too, had reached Panama City Beach in Bay County.

It was in Sarasota Bay where the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and reported a manatee in distress Wednesday.

The manatee, a young adult female, couldn’t rise to the surface to breathe, so Mote staff and interns held her up with pool noodles until help arrived.

In what looks like a camping RV, a pair of marine animals biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission drove the animal up Interstate 75 and along the congested I-4 corridor until they reached SeaWorld.

They reached their destination at 5:15 p.m. as ominous dark clouds took over the sky.

Martony walked briskly, carrying a plastic container filled with medicine and tools to immediately collect a blood and fecal sample so the diagnosis can begin.

The manatee was motionless as if she were in a coma.

But it could have been worse. At least she was not having seizures, in which case her muzzle or her pectoral flippers would be twitching.

 The truck staffed by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission arrives at SeaWorld Orlando (Gabrielle Russon/Orlando Sentinel)

The truck staffed by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission arrives at SeaWorld Orlando (Gabrielle Russon/Orlando Sentinel)

Of SeaWorld’s 15 red tide manatees brought in this year, two died in July. Six others recovered within a day or so and were transferred to other facilities in Florida, so SeaWorld has room for the most critically sick emergency manatee cases.

 SeaWorld's rescue team help transport a sick manatee. "This is an unprecedented year," said Lorri Braso, supervisor of animal rescue operations, who has worked there for 28 years. SeaWorld has cared for 55 rescues this year, the most ever of any year and it's only September. (Courtesy of SeaWorld Orlando)

SeaWorld's rescue team help transport a sick manatee. "This is an unprecedented year," said Lorri Braso, supervisor of animal rescue operations, who has worked there for 28 years. SeaWorld has cared for 55 rescues this year, the most ever of any year and it's only September. (Courtesy of SeaWorld Orlando)

It took three people to move the manatee on her side to place her on a stretcher.

Lorri Braso, SeaWorld’s supervisor of animal rescue operations, used a forklift that lifted the manatee up gently from the truck and then back onto a mat on the ground.

As Martony knelt down, the manatee jolted, her nostrils flaring. There was still life in her.

Another SeaWorld rescue team member shined a flashlight into her eyes. Martony, who is in her residency at the University of Florida, took a blood sample from the left flipper.

The manatee lay still. The triage was quick.

A few minutes later, with Braso at the helm of the forklift again, they placed the sea cow in a pool of water only as deep as their ankles.

The manatee couldn’t hold her head above the water to the breath, so one rescuer cradled her snout in his hands.

“I think you’re going to need to prop her nostrils up,” Martony instructed.

They lifted her upper body on top of a large pillow-shaped foam so she wouldn’t drown.

 John Picard, a SeaWorld animal care specialist, makes sure the manatee can breathe since it is unable to rise to the surface. The team at SeaWorld Orlando works around-the-clock to care for rescued animals. (Courtesy of SeaWorld Orlando)

John Picard, a SeaWorld animal care specialist, makes sure the manatee can breathe since it is unable to rise to the surface. The team at SeaWorld Orlando works around-the-clock to care for rescued animals. (Courtesy of SeaWorld Orlando)

Then, they waited.

The next morning brought promise. The manatee seemed to be recovering and was swimming on her own again.

For now, she will remain a patient, unable to be discharged.

State officials must sign off on their release, but the manatees’ home waters are not safe yet with the resurgence of the red tide.

There is nowhere in the wild for them to go.