Manatees are dying in droves this year. The die-offs could spell trouble for Florida
Updated 6:51 AM ET, Sun May 30, 2021
(CNN)Despite their portly frame and inherent meekness, Florida's manatees are survivors.
When power plants began popping up along Florida's East and West coasts, manatees learned to follow the flow of the unseasonably warm water.
When boats with sharp motors increasingly flooded their habitats, they learned how to live with debilitating injuries, or tried to.
And when their favorite source of food began to disappear when toxic algae infested the water, they learned to eat less, often at the cost of their health.
Their gentle nature belies a deceptive resilience. Unathletic as they may seem -- they tip the scales at around half a ton -- they're built to endure.
But how much more can one species take?
Decades of environmental stress culminated this year in one of the worst manatee die-offs in recent history: As of May 21, at least 749 manatees have died in Florida in 2021, in what the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has called an unusual mortality event, or UME.
Manatee advocates who've sounded the alarm for years saw it coming.
"Manatees are literally that sentinel species," says Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, a 40-year-old nonprofit co-founded by Jimmy Buffet. "They're warning us of what else is going to come if we don't do a better job while there's still time to do something about it. If we don't, our own lives will suffer."