Clues to combating Red Tide are found in mounting manatee carcasses

Veterinarian Martine de Wit places samples of manatee tissue in a freezer at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Marine Mammal Pathology Lab in St. Petersburg. The tissue will be tested to see if the current Red Tide caused the manatees death. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Veterinarian Martine de Wit places samples of manatee tissue in a freezer at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Marine Mammal Pathology Lab in St. Petersburg. The tissue will be tested to see if the current Red Tide caused the manatees death. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Sept. 6, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — As Martine de Wit stepped into a large and brightly lit laboratory near Eckerd College at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, she saw she had a heavy workload waiting.

Eight dead manatees were stacked up like kindling, waiting to be cut up so de Wit and her crew of biologists could figure out what killed them.

Normally, the end of a long weekend might result in one or two manatee carcasses waiting in cold storage for de Wit, a 47-year-old veterinarian from the Netherlands whose accented English carries the same just-the-facts manner as Sgt. Joe Friday from "Dragnet."

But this is the Time of Red Tide in Florida. The toxic algae bloom has already been named as the killer or suspected killer of more than 100 manatees since the spring, and so the carcasses keep rolling in like waves at the seaside.PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Red Tide's toxic toll — your questions answered (w/video).

Seven of the eight manatees awaiting the knife Tuesday morning were suspected Red Tide victims too (the eighth had injuries showing it was hit by a boat). Each one had to be thoroughly examined for evidence, in hopes of learning what's killing the federally threatened species.

"Although it's a big load, we try to stick to forensic principles," de Wit said.

About a dozen people crowded into the lab and set to work. A couple were eager volunteers and two were observers from other countries. The rest were biologists employed by the state's Marine Mammal Pathology Laboratory, which examines every dead manatee to find a cause of death.

Think of it as "CSI: Sea Cow," paid for by all those "Save the Manatee" license plates sold by the state. The staff's grim duty to investigate all manatee deaths is leavened by the hopefulness of their other work: going out to rescue manatees in distress.

It's as if a hospital's morgue also ran the emergency room and ambulance service.

Brandon Lee Bassett, 41, wearing a yellow apron, blue jumpsuit and tan rubber boots, grabbed the white handle of a Dexter carving knife, leaned over a stainless steel table and started slicing into the first big manatee, one that had been found near Sanibel.

Bassett has worked at the lab for 11 years, and has seen plenty of messy scenes involving decaying manatee carcasses.

"We occasionally have one explode and paint the ceiling," he said.

RELATED: Why is Red Tide so bad this year? Could dust from the Sahara be to blame?

As Bassett worked, he and other biologists — burly and bearded Sean Tennant and dark-haired Brittany Barbeau — called out details on what they were finding in the digestive system and other organs, which de Wit typed into a computer. They took small samples from the stomach, the liver, the lung and put them into small plastic baggies to send over to the state's marine science laboratory on St. Petersburg's waterfront.

Tests at that lab would determine whether the manatees had eaten sea grass coated with the algae's potent brevetoxins, de Wit said. Getting a definitive answer may take two months, she said.

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"We just got the results back from May," she said.

RELATED: Recalling the devastating Red Tide of 2005 and dreading a repeat

Meanwhile another team set to work on an adjacent table cutting a second manatee and pulling out samples. Both teams worked quickly, never cracking a joke or dropping a pair of forceps. At one point, though, an overeager volunteer cleaning an exam table accidentally sprayed Bassett in the back, making him yelp.

All of the apparent Red Tide victims came from the area hardest hit by the toxic algae bloom, the worst in a decade. They were found on Marco Island, off Venice, near Nokomis, off Sarasota and Bradenton. The report on each one said, "RT suspect."

The smell in the lab became fishy and funky, but not foul enough to force any of the biologists to wear a mask. In between each necropsy — the scientific term for an animal autopsy — the biologists scrubbed the examination tables, their instruments and even their own aprons with soapy hot water. At one point, the scrubbing produced a flurry of tiny bubbles that floated aimlessly through the lab.

From time to time, a fly would zoom around, trying to find a good place to land. Usually those explorations ended with a loud ZAP! from a bug zapper mounted near the ceiling. The remainder of the room's decor consisted of a manatee skeleton on a plaque, three sea turtle shells, a small porcelain manatee figurine with angel wings and a stuffed fish no one could explain.

As the biologists finished with each manatee, the parts they didn't need went into gray trash bins. Later, a truck was scheduled to pick up the bins and take what's inside to a rendering plant in Tampa to be turned into the raw materials for perfume and other products.

Even though Red Tide's iron grip on the Southwest Florida coast loosened a bit over the weekend, apparently because of Tropical Storm Gordon, de Wit doesn't see any end in sight for the long hours put in by her crew.

"This die-off can last up to two months after the end of the fish kills, because the brevetoxins are still present on sea grass," she said.

About 11 a.m., just as they finished with the eighth manatee, a wildlife commission truck pulled up outside. In the back, wrapped in a tarp, was another dead manatee. Its body was covered in old, fully healed propeller scars, but it had been found in Venice, the heart of the Red Tide outbreak.

"Just when you think the end is in sight," de Wit said, "they keep coming."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.