CHARLESTON -- Coastal waters have hit room temperature and, right on cue, the first manatee of the year has been spotted in the Charleston area.
The manatee was reported last week in the Cooper River near Bushy Park, said Al Segars of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. DNR maintains a website for manatee sighting reports.
And as manatees return to area waters, he and others have some advice for boaters: Watch out. The slow-moving mammals need to surface to breathe, and boat propeller strikes are a leading cause of deaths.
Boaters also should use common sense, look for large swirls or signs of movement in the water as you would watch for debris, said Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist with the Save the Manatee Club.
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Wick Scurry, owner of J&W Corp., which operates a ferry between Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands, said manatees are spotted in local waters occasionally, although he hasn't seen any so far this year.
He said the animals like to hang out by the docks, especially if there's a hose running.
"The cool thing is, around the docks when you put a freshwater hose in the water, they will come right up," he said. "They are as friendly or friendlier than a dolphin."
That means humans' benign intentions can turn deadly for the so-called "sea cows," according to Al Segars, a DNR veterenarian. He said people should not feed manatees or attempt to lure them by running freshwater hoses near a dock or other place where boat traffic is likely.
"People aren't being malicious, but they're drawing those animals right into the most dangerous areas for them, where there are boat props" and a likelihood of being struck and seriously injured or killed, Segars said. "... And then I'm the one that then has to come drag them out of the water."
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 makes it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill manatees or any other marine mammal.
Typically, 50 or more manatees make their way to South Carolina each summer from their wintering grounds in Florida.
Some think the numbers here are increasing as threats in Florida multiply.
Sightings have increased in recent years, but wildlife experts aren't sure whether the actual number of manatees has increased or there's better reporting.
They are an endangered species, and are in jeopardy at both ends of their seasonal migration.
Like dolphins, they roam tidal waters to search for food, the same waters crowded by boats during the summer.
The last manatee seen in 2012 was found floating dead in Lake Marion in November, evidently killed by colder water after getting trapped in the dammed Marion-Moultrie lakes.
In Florida, this year is shaping up to be the worst on record for the sea cows. About 10 percent of the population has been found dead so far -- some 600 mammals -- three years after 766 deaths became the worst year on record.
So far, 260 have turned up dead in the Gulf of Mexico in lower Florida, victims of a lethal "red tide" algae bloom. More than 150 have died in the Indian River on the state's East Coast from a cascade of problems after a severe cold snap three years ago and two blooms of different species of algae. The red tide appears to be dissipating, said Rose of Save the Manatee. Still, the outlook for the animals there is "very guarded," he said.
Staff writer Casey Conley contributed to this report.
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