With sea turtle and manatee sightings on the rise along 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.”
In 2012, 43 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. The usual is about 25 percent, Dodd said.
And while federally threatened loggerhead sea turtles reached a nesting milestone in the state last year – topping 2,000 nests – boat strikes that kill or injure reproductive females undermine those gains.
Manatees, federally listed as endangered, share a similar problem. Drawn north by warm waters and abundant marsh grass and other vegetation, manatees are found in all Georgia tidal rivers, estuaries and near-shore marine waters, mostly east of Interstate 95.
Survey flights started two weeks ago spotted manatees, also known as sea cows, in Cumberland Sound near Kings Bay naval submarine base. Manatees also have been seen twice this year in the Brunswick area, and as recent as Tuesday morning in the Savannah River, said natural resources biologist Clay George of DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.
“We would expect their numbers to be increasing over the next month,” George said.
Which means boaters should also 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 main 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 www.georgiawildlife.com/node/1325 (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. Photographs of scars on their backs and tails are especially useful because they can often be used to identify previously known manatees.
Manatees occasionally gather in mating “herds.” These groups of males following a female in estrus can include as many as 20 manatees.
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 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 is bad for the manatees and is illegal.
Help Georgia's Nongame Wildlife
Help conserve endangered and other nongame wildlife through buying a bald eagle or ruby-throated hummingbird license plate, contributing to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund through the state income tax checkoff or donating directly to the fund. Each option provides vital support for the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds for its mission to conserve wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and natural habitats.
Visit www.georgiawildlife.org/conservation for more information, or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).