A manatee comes up for air in Three Sister Springs in Crystal River, Fla. on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023.
© Lauren Whiddon / Fresh Take Florida
A manatee comes up for air in Three Sister Springs in Crystal River, Fla. on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023.
Lluvia and her calf, Morado, glide to the bottom of their habitat to munch on romaine lettuce; This is the first of the eight hours they spend eating each day.

They are the lucky ones, survivors of what wildlife experts fear could be another year of unusually high deaths among Florida's beloved manatees.

As late as Wednesday, state officials were reporting at least 56 manatee deaths in 2023 — compared to 39 in the same period last year, the second deadliest year on record. This year's dead include three from boat encounters, ten related to childbirth and eight from Florida's recent severe cold snap. Officials said they have yet to determine the cause of 29 of this year's deaths.

In Tampa, Lluvia, Morado and 13 other manatees rescued from the state's west coast are recovering from injury or illness at ZooTampa's David A Straz Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center, one of 13 such rescue centers in the United States. Rescuers here hope to release them back into the wild.

What awaits other manatees in the wild in Florida's bays, canals and swamps this year is unclear. A spokeswoman for Save the Manatee Club, a nonprofit in Maitland, Meghan Cohorst said it was too early to speculate.

Accidents involving boats — usually spinning propellers — send manatees to ZooTampa's intensive care unit, said Molly Lippincott, curator of Florida manatees at the zoo. But for their East Coast relatives, the problem lies in the food shortages at the bottom of the Indian River Lagoon.

"Researchers believe that as long as there are seagrass shortages in the Indian River Lagoon, the findings of chronic malnutrition in manatees along the Atlantic coast will persist," the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in a statement this week.