Mind the Manatee

July 28, 2023

By George Armond

The Lowcountry welcomes friendly visitors each summer.
Manatees have been spotted in South Carolina since the 1800s, but Beaufort County historically appears to be a popular destination.
According to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, there had have more than 500 sightings in Beaufort County since 1850 (as per a 2004 report).
Summertime is a hot time for sightings. Records show manatees are most spotted in the state in July and August.
SCDNR began a formal project to document manatees in the 1990s and reported 848 sightings in the state between 1996 and 2003. In 1998, there was a record 190 sightings in South Carolina.
Here are some more facts about these gentle mammals.

Robust mammals
On average, manatees are 11.5 feet long with an average weight of 2,200 pounds. In the “murky” waters of South Carolina, only the small head is sometimes seen as the animal surfaces for air, according to SCDNR.
The head is rounded and indistinct from the body, with no neck area apparent. Their eyes are small. Manatees have flexible flippers which help them maneuver.
A large tail is rounded and horizontally flattened which helps propel the manatee forward.
Manatees enjoy our water’s warm temperatures. They typically arrive in May and leave by November when the temperatures dip below 68 degrees.

Relaxed pace
Manatees move slowly. They often rest and then travel. They like to eat aquatic plants and can consume floating, emergent, and submerged vegetation from freshwater, brackish, and saltwater environments, according to savethemanatee.org.
They surface to breathe air on an average of every three to five minutes.
When manatees rest, they can stay submerged for up to 20 minutes. Even though manatees can swim up to 20 miles per hour in short bursts, they usually swim about three to five miles per hour.

Endangered species
The West Indian manatee is listed as endangered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the South Carolina Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act.
The manatee population is estimated to be 13,000, with more than 6,500 in the southeastern United States and Puerto Rico, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Manatees are also found in the Greater Antilles, the east coast of Mexico and Central America, along the north and northeast coast of South America, and in Trinidad and Tobago, per SCDNR.

SCDNR Tips for Being Manatee-Friendly:

•  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; plus 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 their motors, 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.

Sources: SCDNR. Savethemanatee.org. USFWS