Untamed Lowcountry

Hilton Head golf course had an 850-pound visitor. What it took to get ‘Wilson’ to safety

An 856-pound manatee ended up somewhere it shouldn’t have on Friday — a lagoon in Hilton Head Island’s Palmetto Dunes.

The manatee, which S.C. Fish and Wildlife Service called “distressed,” was slightly underweight and had cuts on its body, according to a news release.

Manatees typically live in Florida for most of the year, venturing north in the summer, when water temperatures rise. Manatees are often spotted around Hilton Head in summertime, but they head south when the water gets cold. They can’t survive long in water colder than 68 degrees. On Friday, the sea temperature off Hilton Head was 73 degrees.

The manatee was stranded between the 9th and 10th holes on the northern side of the Robert Trent Jones golf course, according to Palmetto Dunes general manager Andrew Schumacher.

A golfer spotted the female marine mammal last week and alerted maintenance teams, who named it “Wilson” and tried to isolate the sea cow to a specific area using the tide gates.

Schumacher said Wilson was named before staff found out it was female, but the name stuck and is likely a take on the famous volleyball-turned-best-friend from the Tom Hanks movie “Castaway.”

Rescue teams from Sea World were called to help relocate the manatee to the Orlando facility for rehabilitation. Schumacher said it took nearly three hours for the trained kayak team to coerce Wilson to enter a large underwater net and be hoisted to shore by a backhoe.

Wilson, a 856-pound manatee, was rescued from a lagoon Palmetto Dunes in Palmetto Dunes on Nov. 1. She is being cared for at Sea World in Orlando before being released back into the wild. Bethany Bagley, Sea World Orlando Special to The Island Packet

Teams from Sea World took Wilson back to Florida for a health assessment, the release said. After it heals, the 8-foot-long manatee will be returned to the wild.

As many as 13,000 West Indian manatees, large, aquatic relatives of the elephant, can be found in warm waters of shallow rivers, bays and estuaries of the Caribbean basin and Southeastern U.S. In 2017, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service downgraded the status of the West Indian manatee — of which the Florida manatee is a subspecies — to threatened from endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Florida manatees — gentle, giant creatures that eat seagrass and other aquatic plants — are at risk of exposure to red tide, cold stress, and disease in the wild, the release said.

Human-caused threats include boat strikes, crushing by flood gates or locks, entrapment and entanglement in or ingestion of fishing gear, according to the release.

Although Wilson had cuts on its body, there was no sign the manatee was struck by a boat, Schumacher said.

Palmetto Dunes, a popular visitor destination on Hilton Head, is home to a vast, 11-mile-long canal system that runs under several bridges and around three golf courses before reaching the ocean.

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Bethany Bagley, Sea World Orlando Special to The Island Packet

“In Palmetto Dunes, we strive to maintain the health of our waterways and all wildlife that inhabit it. When we found the manatee had navigated into our lagoon system and was not able to find its way back to the ocean, we immediately contacted DNR for assistance,” Schumacher said in the release.

“We were fortunate that the rescue teams were able to quickly respond and rescue the manatee,” Schumacher said.

Wilson isn’t the first manatee to be rescued from Palmetto Dunes.

Several years ago, Schumacher said the community relocated a male manatee named Speedy much earlier in the year. He said it’s not uncommon to see manatees wander in and out of the lagoon system, but Wilson was so far in that it was unlikely to find its way out.

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.