‘Clung onto me:’ Floridians save distressed manatee after it ate toxic red tide seagrass

Manatee recovering at SeaWorld Orlando

BRADENTON, Fla. – A manatee is in SeaWorld Orlando’s care after it nearly drowned in Manatee County after eating seagrass contaminated with toxic red tide. Fortunately, people were there to help get results and save the sea cow.

Don Swartz and Elizabeth Bailey work for Freedom Boat Club in Bradenton. On Tuesday morning, they said they got a radio call from a member reporting a manatee in distress near their dock.

“We spotted the manatee relatively quickly, a matter of minutes,” Bailey said.

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The pair called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to report the distressed manatee. Wildlife officials told them to stay close to the manatee and make sure it was still breathing.

“If you don’t see it coming up for air after a few minutes, you might have to help lift its head or if it goes belly up, you will definitely have to start assisting it,” Bailey recalled wildlife officials telling her while on the phone.

She said while they were talking to FWC the manatee went belly up. Swartz jumped in the water and said the manatee didn’t seem to be breathing.

“I just held [him] and [he] just clung onto me,” Swartz said. “[He] had one around my waist and one around my leg and just clamped onto me. I think [he] knew we were trying to help.”

Photographer Mikko Claxton was nearby. He snapped a picture of Swartz as he was dipping the manatee’s head in and out of the water to help it breathe.

“It was slowly getting some strength back as he was doing that,” Claxton said. “To catch him out there saving wildlife and helping it out, it was awesome just to see that.”

Swartz said the wind and current pushed him and the manatee closer to shore. He was able to wedge himself along the seawall. He helped the manatee breathe for 40 minutes until the FWC arrived and took the animal to SeaWorld Orlando.

Candace Moore, a member of SeaWorld Orlando’s rescue team, said it appears the manatee ate seagrass contaminated with toxic red tide.

“What happens is they become weak, they have a hard time breathing and so if they don’t get help soon it can be fatal,” Moore said.

It has been a record-breaking year for manatee deaths. According to the latest report from the FWC, so far 974 manatees have died in 2021, which is double the number of reported deaths for all of last year.

“It was really lucky for them that they were able to get on the phone, get the right person and be there. We’re very thankful for that, it’s awesome,” Moore said.

Moore said the 700-pound male manatee is doing well at their facilities.

“He’s swimming around, he’s breathing great and he looks pretty good,” Moore said.

Bailey and Swartz said they’re grateful to be in the right place at the right time. They hope they can be there when he’s returned.

“I’d love to see him again. I feel we have a bond, an unspoken bond with him now,” Bailey said.

SeaWorld said they’re still waiting on results from the blood test to confirm toxic red tide is to blame. Moore adds while the manatee is making a great recovery, they still don’t know when he will be released.

If you spot a manatee in distress, Moore adds to not approach it. Instead, you’re urged to report a sick, injured or dead manatee by calling 888-404-FWCC (3922) or use #FWC or *FWC from your phone.

About the Author:

Amanda Castro, a proud UCF alum, joined the News 6 team in November 2015 and was promoted to weekend morning anchor in April 2016. Go Knights!