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TODAY   |  March 11, 2013

Algae killing Fla. manatees in record numbers

Florida state officials are finding as many as ten dead manatees a day, which experts say is nothing short of a catastrophe, killed by a deadly algae known as the red tide that has infested their winter migration waters. NBC’s Mark Potter reports.

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>>> to florida, a deadly algae known as the red tide killing endangered manatees in record numbers. mark potter is in key biscayne this morning, good morning.

>> reporter: good morning, savannah. officials say this is a catastrop catastrophe, they sometimes find as many as ten dead manatees a day. they're approaching a record kill in an entire year. they are among the gentlist of creatures spending their days grazing along florida's coastal waters and rivers. now the already endangered manatees are confronting an algae known as the red tide and it's killing them by the dozens.

>> astonished because we love manatees .

>> reporter: when the manatees eat it their breathing stops and they can drown in as little as two inches of water. this is from sarasota down to ft. myers and the death toll is being magnified because it's an area where manatees come for their winter migration. the latest figures show so far the red tide has killed 149 manatees . in 1996 , a record 151 died, but that was for the whole year.

>> i've seen two now just in the past week.

>> reporter: more than a dodd manatees have been rescued, 11 taken to a park zoo in tampa for treatment. staff members rotate on three-hour shifts, keeping the manatee's head above water so it can breathe. marine biologists say not only are they eating the deadly algae on the surface but they believe the toxin has settled into the seagrass so when the bloom ends the poisonous coating is likely to stay in the grass beds for another two months.

>> this has got to be one of the worst times i've seen it.

>> reporter: experts worry the pools holding the rescued manatees are starting to fill up but they don't want to put them out in the wild because the red tide could poison them once again.

>> mark potter in key biscayne