Coastal Boaters: Slow Down, Watch for Manatees, Sea Turtles

Brunswick, GA
Monday, April 11, 2016 - 09:45



With sea turtle and manatee sightings on the rise on Georgia’s coast, boaters should be on the lookout for these big and rare animals.

Boat strikes are a leading cause of sea turtle strandings and manatee injuries and deaths. Manatees and all sea turtle species found in Georgia are protected by federal and state laws.

Tips on what to watch for in the coast’s murky waters differ. A “footprint” of swirls may mark a 1-ton manatee underwater. A 300-pound loggerhead sea turtle may show only its head when it surfaces.

The best advice: Be aware, and be prepared to slow down or steer clear.

State Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Mark Dodd of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said that while sea turtles are considered common on the ocean side of barrier islands, they frequent tidal waters. “Sea turtles aren’t just in the ocean,” Dodd said. “They’re also in the tidal creeks and sounds.”

While nesting data suggests these federally threatened turtles are rebounding, boat strikes that kill or injure reproductive females undermine those gains. In 2015, about 28 percent of the sea turtles found dead or injured on the beach or strand in Georgia suffered injuries consistent with being hit by a boat.

Manatees, federally listed as endangered, share a similar problem. These slow-moving mammals swim just below the surface, often putting them in harm’s way for oncoming boats: Watercraft collisions caused 28 percent of the manatee mortalities documented in the state since 2000.

Each spring, manatees migrate from Florida to Georgia, attracted by abundant marsh grass and other aquatic vegetation. “Manatees occur in all tidal waters throughout coastal Georgia, from April to October,” said wildlife biologist Clay George of DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section. Some were spotted near Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in early March, and manatees were reported near Brunswick and Savannah last week. “So manatees are now throughout the coast,” George said.

Which means boaters should be on the lookout for these massive marine mammals.

Heeding low-speed and no-wake zones, particularly around docks where manatees eat algae growing on the structures, will reduce collision risks. So will sticking to the deeper channels when boating in tidal rivers and creeks. George said manatees “are often right along the edge of the marsh,” feeding on Spartina alterniflora, or salt marsh cordgrass.

Boaters who hit a manatee or sea turtle are urged to stand-by and immediately contact the DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363). This provides biologists the best chance to help the animal and gather valuable scientific data. Boaters will not be charged if they were operating their boat responsibly and the collision was an accident.

Boaters and others are also encouraged to report any dead manatees and sea turtles they see. (If the turtle is tagged, include the tag color and number in the report if possible.) DNR monitors sea turtle and manatee mortality through the Marine Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding and Salvage Networks. The information gleaned, including from necropsies to evaluate cause of death, provides the primary index for threats to sea turtles and marine mammals in coastal waters.

Sea Turtle Strandings Online

Regular updates available at Sea Turtle Recovery Efforts page (click the “Reported Strandings” box).

See a Manatee?

If you see or photograph a healthy, injured or dead manatee, please contact DNR at (800) 2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363). Please note the date, time, location and number of manatees seen, as well as the coordinates, if possible.

Manatees sometimes gather in groups to socialize. Large mating “herds” can top 20 individuals. This socializing is normal manatee behavior, wildlife biologist Clay George said. “Females sometimes swim into shallow water on purpose, apparently to avoid approaching males.”

On the Lookout for Manatees

Here are some other ways Georgia residents can help protect manatees:

  • 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, making it easier to spot manatees below the surface.
  • Watch for trails of large swirls in the water called footprints that may be 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.
  • Never pursue, harass or play with manatees. It can be harmful to manatees and it’s illegal.

Help Georgia's Nongame Wildlife

Help conserve endangered and other nongame wildlife by contributing through the Georgia Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund state income tax checkoff and through buying or renewing a bald eagle or ruby-throated hummingbird license plate. Each option provides vital support for the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, which depends primarily on fundraising for its mission to conserve wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and natural habitats.

See how to support wildlife for more information, or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).