On a chilly January morning, dozens of wildlife workers and volunteers dropped heaps of lettuce into Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. The bright-green bunches floated on the water, then were gobbled up.
The leafy greens are part of a feeding program to save manatees—large, plant-eating marine mammals. The seagrass that makes up the bulk of their diet is dying off in Florida waters. Without the hundreds of thousands of pounds of supplemental food this past winter, many manatees would have starved.
Still, nearly 2,000 manatees have died over the past two years, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. About 6,500 to 8,500 manatees remain in the area.
“It’s an emergency situation,” says Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, based in Maitland, Florida. “Without a chance to eat enough food, many literally were dying right and left.”
Rescuers are rallying to help before it’s too late.