Manatees make a return to South Carolina coast with a call for boat safety and sightings

State - Regional

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CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCBD) – With Manatees typically arriving in the early months of the year starting in May here in the Palmetto State due to warmer water temperatures, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are working to get the word out on boating carefully and reporting sightings of these coastal sea cows. 

Currently the estimated manatee population in the United States is at 6,600 manatees, most of which live off the Floridian coast. However, with South Carolina’s murky waters, the South Carolina manatee population is currently unknown and SCDNR is looking to the public for help with documenting these gentle giants. 

This manatee wears a satellite tag to help researchers track its movements (Photo: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute)

If you spot a manatee in South Carolina’s waters, there are several ways to help.  SCDNR encourages anyone report sightings and provide pictures of live manatees through the SCDNR manatee sighting form.   

SCDNR says that photos of scars on manatees’ backs and tails are useful as they can be used to identify previously known individuals.  However, manatees should not be approached simply for the sake of taking the picture.  Because of federal and state protections, it is illegal to hunt, play with, or harass manatees, which includes touching, providing water to or attempting to feed them.  Injured or dead manatees should be immediately reported to the SCDNR wildlife hotline at 1-800-922-5431 and biologists ask that if a boat accidentally collides with a manatee that the boater stand by and contact SCDNR or the U.S. Coast guard via VHF Channel 16. 

The Florida Manatee was labeled as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act for 44 years.  As of March of 2017, manatee numbers have increased as a result of improving habitats and USFWS has reclassified them a “threatened.”  However, Manatees are still protected under South Carolina and Federal law with their greatest threats coming from boats, entanglement in fishing gear and harmful algal blooms. 

This map shows an example of the location data collected by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute from satellite-tagged manatees.

SCDNR’s Tips for Being Manatee Friendly in South Carolina: 

  •  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. 
  • Boaters should look around for manatees before cranking your boat’s motor and watch for large swirls in the water, or “footprints,” that may be caused by manatees diving away from the boat. 
  • Heed “slow speed,” “no wake” and manatee warning signs, especially around docks. Use caution when navigating in shallow water and along the edge of a marsh.  Manatees cannot dive away from boats in these areas. 
  • Wear polarized sunglasses to reduce glare, making it easier to spot manatees below the surface. 

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