Beneath the shade of towering Australian pines, a crowd gathered on Coquina Beach around a plastic tote, straining their necks as if they were trying to get a peek at the Mona Lisa.
Small like the Leonardo da Vinci painting itself, a male green sea turtle estimated to be between 3 and 5 years old sat on top of two small sandy towels, trying to crawl his way out to return to the Gulf of Mexico.
The turtle wasn't given a name by his caretakers at CROW, or the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, but instead had the patient ID of 18-2584: the 2,584th animal to be treated by the Sanibel Island-based wildlife center this year.
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When patient 18-2584 was found near Boca Grande on June 29, he was bobbing at the surface and unable to dive down. That's one of the symptoms of red tide sickness, said CROW marketing manager Brian Bohiman.
Red tide, or the toxic accumulation of the naturally occurring organism Karenia brevis, produces neurotoxins that affect an animals nervous system. It can render a sea turtle into a coma-like state of lethargy, which can open itself up to secondary injuries like a boat strike or shark attack. In humans, the effects are typically limited to coughing or eye irritation.
A family of five on a boat found the sea turtle and notified the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said Boca Grande Sea Turtle Association board member Melissa Csank. A volunteer met the family at the Boca Grande Marina and made the two-hour trek around Charlotte Harbor to transport the sick turtle to CROW.
He is the seventh sea turtle CROW has treated for red tide and released back into the wild this year.
"We've definitely had a steady stream of red tide patients," Bohiman said.
The bloom has been clobbering southwest Florida since it formed in late October 2017. Csank said it's the worst she has seen it in her area in 15 years. Over that time, dead goliath grouper, snook, pufferfish, red fish and sea turtles have washed up on Boca Grande shores.
"It's pretty rare to be this bad," she said.
Occasionally, the red tide has drifted to Manatee County shores but has stayed away recently. Although wildlife officials prefer to release rehabilitated turtles where they are found, Coquina Beach was a safer location set it free and partnered with Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch.
Though warm like bathwater, the gulf was a slight reprieve to the hot, still July Wednesday morning. The surf near Lifeguard Stand No. 2 on Coquina Beach was clear and calm but proved strong for the small turtle, sometimes knocking it back as he tried to duck his head under the waves.
The beach behind him was dotted with dozens of marked sea turtle nests, which outnumbered the umbrellas pitched into the sand. Soon, those hatchlings would crawl into the water like patient 18-2584, disappearing in plain sight.