TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The cold weather in the Tampa Bay, Florida, area isn’t just impacting people, but it can be extremely harmful to manatees. Experts at ZooTampa said it’s called “cold stress.”

The zoo’s Lisa Smith said it’s the manatees’ form of frostbite.

“You’ll see really bad lesions all over their bodies. Some whitening of their skin,” she said.

She told WFLA that manatees can only survive in waters over 68 degrees, so anything below that can become a serious problem.

“They have to migrate into warm water sites, so that’s why if you’re around locally, you’ll see them in power plants and springs. And if they don’t make it there, that’s when they’ll get the cold stress,” said Smith.

Whenever ZooTampa receives a sick manatee, the animal is put in 80-degree pools and given food and medicine.

“If they come in young, they have to stay here until they’re about 600 pounds, which is about 2 years old. So some of the cases that we got in last year are just reaching that mark this year, and they’re getting ready for release,” Smith said.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials say last year saw a record number of 1,101 documented manatee deaths, many caused by starvation.

Manatees at risk of starvation because native seagrass is dying due to water pollution have begun eating lettuce under an experimental feeding program. 

In addition to the feeding experiment — a state and federal response to last year’s deaths –, officials are working with a number of facilities to rehabilitate distressed manatees that are found alive. These include Florida zoos, the SeaWorld theme park, and marine aquariums. There were 159 rescued manatees in 2021, some of which require lengthy care and some that have been returned to the wild, officials said.

Smith said it’s important for everyone to pitch in and help save these manatees. If you see a sick one on the waterways, immediately call Florida Fish and Wildlife.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.