Here's how you can help the manatees returning to SC waters June 1, 2017
As manatees return to their summer haunts along the coast, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) biologists are reminding residents and visitors to be particularly alert while boating and to report sightings of these gentle giants online.
Manatees can be difficult to spot in South Carolina's murky waters, but alert boaters can learn to look for their snouts, backs, tails and telltale "footprints" in shallow waters.
Manatees, or sea cows, are large marine mammals that reach around 10 feet in length and weigh up to a ton. They're warm-weather visitors in South Carolina, typically arriving in May and leaving by November, when water temperatures drop below 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the difficulty of counting them in murky waters, South Carolina's manatee population is currently unknown – but it's a small fraction of the United States' estimated 6,000 animals, most of which live in Florida. Due to federal and state protections, it's illegal to hunt, play with or harass manatees, which includes touching, providing water to or attempting to feed them.
Last year SCDNR staff responded to a handful of manatee-related events. Two animals were found dead in August – one as a result of a boat strike and one of inconclusive causes – and an abnormally warm winter led to a number of monitoring and rescue efforts across the Southeast.
In December 2016, a large, multi-agency team successfully rescued five manatees suffering from cold stress in the Cooper River and relocated them to warm waters in Florida.
Biologists with the Sea to Shore Alliance tagged a number of last year's rescued animals with satellite transmitters, and at least one of those animals has already made his way to South Carolina from Florida this spring. Tagged manatees wear a "belt" around the base of their tails and trail a floating satellite transmitter that collects and sends information about the animal's location (see photo). The tags are harmless to the animal and designed to break free in case of entanglement. Officials ask that members of the public do not pull or tamper with these tags – they're providing valuable information to help wildlife researchers better understand and protect these mammals.
Tagged manatees trail a satellite transmitter that's designed to break free in case of entanglement. (Photo: Sea to Shore Alliance)
There are a number of ways members of the public can help South Carolina's manatees. SCDNR staff encourage anyone on the water to report sightings and provide photographs, if possible, of live manatees online. Photographs of scars on manatees' backs and tails are particularly useful, because they can often be used to identify previously known individuals – however, manatees should never be approached by boat to obtain pictures.
Injured or dead manatees should be reported immediately to the SCDNR wildlife hotline at 1-800-922-5431. If a boat accidentally collides with a manatee, SCDNR biologists ask that the boater stand by and immediately contact SCDNR or the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16. Doing so provides biologists the best chance to help the animal and gather valuable scientific data.
In addition to reporting sightings, coastal residents and visitors can help manatees by staying alert while on the water and avoiding harmful interactions with the animals.
"Feeding and watering manatees is illegal and encourages the mammals to spend time at docks and marinas, making them susceptible to boat strikes, which is one of the main causes of mortality for manatees," said SCDNR veterinarian Al Segars.
Collisions between boaters and manatees are more likely to occur in shallow waters, particularly around docks and at the edge of marshes where manatees feed. Staying alert, following safe boating practices and maintaining lower speeds in these areas can reduce the risk of a collision. Boaters should also watch for manatee backs, tails, snouts and "footprints" – a series of round swirls on the surface caused by a swimming manatee's tail.
For 44 years, the Florida manatee was protected as "endangered" under the federal Endangered Species Act. But early this year, as a result of increasing numbers and improving habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified their status as "threatened." Manatees are still protected under federal and South Carolina law and face a number of threats on their continued path to recovery. The greatest dangers to the species include boat strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and harmful algal blooms known as red tides.
Tips for being manatee friendly in South Carolina:
- Look around for manatees before cranking your boat's motor.
- Use caution when navigating in shallow water and along the edge of a marsh. Manatees cannot dive away from boats in these areas.
- Please heed "slow speed," "no wake" and manatee warning signs, especially around docks.
- Wear polarized sunglasses to reduce glare, making it easier to spot manatees below the surface.
- Watch for large swirls in the water, called footprints, that may be caused by manatees diving away from the boat.
- Dock owners should never feed manatees or give them fresh water. This could teach the animals to approach docks, putting them at greater risk of a boat strike, and it is illegal.
- Never pursue, harass or play with manatees. It is bad for the manatees and is illegal.
After Hours Radio Room - 803-955-4000