A state of emergency has been declared in Florida as the worst red tide in a decade blackens the ocean water, killing dolphins, sea turtles and fish at a relentless pace.
More than 100 tons of dead sea creatures have been shoveled up from smelly, deserted beaches in tourist areas along Florida’s southwest coast as a result of the harmful algal bloom this month alone.
In just the past week, 12 dolphins washed ashore dead in Sarasota County, typically the toll seen in an entire year.
“It is physically and mentally exhausting,” said Gretchen Lovewell, who is in charge of a skeleton crew at Mote Marine Laboratory that collects dead or distressed sea turtles and marine mammals.
She and two colleagues “have been literally working around the clock,” Lovewell added.
On Sunday, near the fluffy sands of Siesta Key, one of America’s top- ranked beaches, Lovewell recovered the remains of a decomposing dolphin. A faint number, 252, was visible, freeze-branded onto its dorsal fin.
It was a 12-year-old male named Speck, who had been spotted more than 300 times by researchers monitoring generations of bottlenose dolphins in the Sarasota Bay.
“It was devastating,” said Randall Wells, director of the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, the world’s longest- running study of a wild dolphin population, under way since 1970.
Wells pulled out a map showing where researchers have seen Speck over the years. He often swam in waters right near Wells’ own home.
Researchers had also tracked Speck’s mother and grandmother before they died from swallowing fishing gear.
“Speck is somebody we have known from the time he was born,” said Wells, who began studying dolphins when he was 16.
“He was named after my dad.”