Untamed Lowcountry

Sure, these Hilton Head manatees are cute. But don't get too close

If you post videos of yourself playing, feeding or otherwise interacting with manatees, you might get more than a few Instagram likes.

You could face a hefty fine and even jail time.

As manatees, the cute marine animals sometimes referred to as sea cows, make their way to the Hilton Head area as they do every summer, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources is reminding locals and tourists that it's illegal to harass them.

At least three videos were posted to Instagram in the past two weeks of people interacting with the animals at Shelter Cove Harbour and Marina.

One showed a woman on a docked boat spraying water from a hose onto a manatee from above.

Another showed a woman swimming and cuddling with a manatee.

The third was of a man giving a manatee a belly rub.

All of those actions are illegal.

The three who posted the videos did not respond to Island Packet messages seeking comment.

Manatees are protected under federal and South Carolina law because they are a threatened species, according to the DNR. . The animals were considered endangered from 1967 until early last year, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services reclassified the species as "threatened" after the population grew.

Though their classification changed, the law did not.

It is still illegal to hunt or harass manatees. That includes touching, watering, hunting or attempting to feed them. Any of those actions could result in fines of up to $100,000 and a year in jail, according to the Marine Animal Protection Act.

David Lucas, who works in the media and outreach office at DNR, said touching or otherwise interacting with manatees encourages them to come where humans are. That puts the manatees in danger. They can be hit, hurt or killed by boats or become entangled in fishing gear.

Manatees are native to Florida, but migrate north to places such as Hilton Head during the summer. Their peak time in this region usually begins around June and lasts through September or October.

Lucas has one piece of advice.

"Enjoy manatees from a distance," Lucas said.

Jason Wheeler has been a dockmaster at Shelter Cove for five years.

"We actually advise people not to show them any attention at all," Wheeler said.

The marina has cameras placed to monitor activity and Natural Resources "protect the wildlife" signs throughout the harbor.

"When you have as many tourists as we do who may not know rules, it can be hard but we really try to protect the wildlife," Wheeler said. "If it wasn't for wildlife, a lot of us wouldn't have jobs. That's what Hilton Head is all about."