WARNING GRAPHIC IMAGES: Dead fish, turtles, manatees wash up on southwest Florida beaches

It may be interesting to look at, but an explosion of red tide algae off the coast of southwestern Florida is killing off marine animals in record numbers, decimating the population of creatures such as fish, sea turtles, manatees and more.

A number of news reports, including one from the Miami Herald, detail how extensive the damage is and how widespread it has become, ranging from Tampa Bay to the Florida Keys.

“This is horrific what we’re enduring now, but it needs to be a wake-up call to people that clean water is important to more than just wildlife,” Heather Barron, a veterinarian and research director at Sanibel’s CROW Clinic wildlife rescue center, told the Herald. “As the person dealing with all these hundreds of dying animals, I’m upset.”

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The Herald described the phenomenon, which is caused by dinoflagellates and other organisms that produce toxins harmful to sea life, as “a red tide slaughterhouse.” Fox 13 noted that if people see the red tide, it needs to be reported promptly, or the devastating effects can worsen.

“They [the animals] become very disoriented, uncoordinated in the water so ultimately when they can't swim they are in an aquatic environment. They will drown typically," explained Gretchen Lovewell, the program manager for Mote Marine Laboratory's Stranding Investigations Program (SIP), to Fox 13 Tampa Bay.

In addition to creatures such as fish, sea turtles and manatees being impacted, larger marine life, such as whale sharks are also at risk.

Late last month, a dead whale shark washed up on a beach on Sanibel Island in Florida. Wildlife officials ruled that it was likely killed by the current red tide bloom.

The higher concentration of the toxins, the more likely it is that large sea creatures -- such as a whale shark -- can be affected by the bloom, Dr. Richard Bartleson, a research scientist with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, told Fox News.

A low concentration of the Karenia brevis organism is considered to be 10 cells per liter of water, while a high concentration -- which has the ability to kill fish -- typically starts at 500,000 cells per liter.

People have posted pictures to social media of the gruesome effects of red tide.

Although it's a common phenomenon that occurs globally, red tide has been particularly bad in Florida this year, the worst since 2006, according to the Miami Herald. It has occurred almost annually since the 1800s.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines the phenomenon as a "common term used for a harmful algal bloom" (HAB), one that can grow out of control if not kept in check. It can also become fatal to humans, though this is not as widespread as the loss of life to marine animals.

"HABs have been reported in every U.S. coastal state, and their occurrence may be on the rise," the NOAA wrote in an article on its website. "HABs are a national concern because they affect not only the health of people and marine ecosystems, but also the 'health' of local and regional economies."

So far, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has documented 287 sea turtle deaths since the bloom started last October, according to The Associated Press.

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Typically, red tide lasts in Florida from October to around February, but the prolonged period has some calling for a permanent solution.

Sanibel, Fla. Mayor Kevin Ruane blamed the red tide, saying it stemmed from a “perfect storm of coastal pollution and a hot Gulf ignited by flushing nutrient-laden water from Lake Okeechobee,” according to comments obtained by the Miami Herald.

“All they do is obviously fuel the red tide," Ruane added. "So, it’s a catalyst in making the problem worse.”

Fox News' Madeline Farber contributed to this story. Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia