While manatees are showing their adorable, chunky faces in marinas all over Hilton Head Island this summer, S.C. Department of Natural Resources officials urge you to look, but don’t touch, when you encounter these gentle creatures.
The island is one of the two problem areas, along with Charleston, where manatees are chronically fed and watered, SCDNR veterinarian Al Segars said. Doing so encourages the manatees to hang around in marinas, where they are killed by boats.
Boat strikes are a leading cause of death for manatees, according to SCDNR.
“In a place like Hilton Head where there is a lot of tourist turnover, it’s hard to get the message out that feeding or watering manatees endangers that animal,” Segars said. “It’s telling them to come back to that marina, a very dangerous place for them.”
Most manatee feedings are reported at the Harbour Town and Shelter Cove marinas.
“We’ve tried putting up signs in those areas, but people don’t seem to pay attention,” he said.
Manatees, also known as sea cows, typically visit the South Carolina coast in the summer because they love warm water.
They also love fresh water, which is why they squirm and wiggle adorably when splashed by a hose. But don’t be fooled: They don’t need to be watered to survive.
“They’ve gotten fresh water on their own for thousands of years without humans, and they don’t need it now,” Segars said. “It’s like offering a kid chocolate cake. Sure, they’re happy taking it, but it’s not good for them.”
Manatee populations have been on the rise recently, which is great news for the species that was endangered for almost 45 years. Earlier in 2017, the Florida manatee was moved off the “endangered” list under the Endangered Species Act and is now classified as “threatened.”
Segars said his department is seeing increasing manatees sightings in South Carolina every year, but they’re also hearing about more people feeding and watering them.
Even though the manatee population is growing, the mammals remain protected under federal and state law, which means it’s illegal to feed, water, play with or touch a manatee in South Carolina, according to SCDNR’s website. It could result in fines of more than $11,000 and jail time up to a year, according to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Segars said videos of people illegally feeding and touching manatees in South Carolina are “all over Facebook.”
“We don’t investigate every video, but if we get a report of a person who does this a lot at a specific location, we might investigate the situation,” Segars said. “People need to get that these 30-second videos they think are cute are actually breaking a federal law and putting an animal in danger.”
If you do encounter a manatee, SCDNR staff encourages you to report the sighting and provide photographs, if possible. You can do so online at dnr.sc.gov/manatee/sight.htm. The reports help SCDNR study the species. Injured or dead manatees should be reported immediately to the SCDNR wildlife hotline at (800) 922-5431.
Additional tips from SCDNR on how to be 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, which makes it easier to spot manatees below the surface.
▪ Watch for large swirls in the water, called footprints, 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.