DHEC warns boaters to be on lookout for manatees off SC coast

SOUTH CAROLINA (WMBF) - Boaters are being asked to keep an extra watchful eye on the waters to avoid collisions with endangered animals, as the first manatees of the season have been spotted along the South Carolina shoreline.

Officials say because of an estimated population of only 3,000 animals in U.S. waters, manatees are protected as an endangered species under federal and South Carolina Law.

Dangers to manatees in their natural habitat include boat strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and algal blooms known as red tides. The colder than normal winter in Florida this year has also raised the mortality rate for manatees.

Despite manatees being present throughout the year in Florida, scientists say they are migratory in South Carolina. The species begins its migration up the South Carolina coast each spring when water temperatures enter the upper 60s. They can be found in tidal rivers, estuaries and near-shore marine waters throughout Georgia and the Carolinas throughout the summer months.

Manatees return to Florida in September and October as the water temperature cools.

DHEC officials say collisions between boaters and manatees are more likely to occur in shallow waters, particularly around docks and at the edge of marshes where manatees feed. Boaters should also watch for manatee backs, tails, snouts and "footprints"- a series of round swirls on the surface caused by a swimming manatee's tail.

If a boat accidentally collides with a manatee, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) asks that the boater stand-by and immediately contact the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16 or DNR at (800) 922-5431.

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