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Wildlife: Manatees swim under the radar

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

A manatee sighting in Pawleys Creek last week was an exciting experience for a father and son, and photos they took of the creature have generated a lot of interest.

“It’s not something you get to see every day,” said Duncan Pindar, who first spotted the manatee and called his son, Hawkins, 11, over to share in the sight. In 25 summers on Pawleys Island the manatee is the first Duncan has seen in the area.

But manatees, also known as sea cows, aren’t as rare to the South Carolina coast as many believe.

“They’re seen more regularly in Charleston and Beaufort, but they show up every summer. You see them in Murrells Inlet sometimes,” said Rob Young, a professor in the department of marine science at Coastal Carolina University.

While more commonly seen in south Florida, a few manatees annually venture to the Chesapeake Bay, according to Young, and they have been seen as far north as Rhode Island.

There are several reasons why manatee sightings aren’t more common in South Carolina. First, there are only an estimated 3,000 manatees in U.S. waters and “we don’t have the best habitat for them,” Young said. “We don’t have a lot of sea grass and things like that.”

Manatees feed on marsh grass and other aquatic plants.

It’s often difficult to spot the manatees that do come into area creeks and inlets. Manatees vary from gray to brown in color, so they tend to blend in murky waters. When they come to the surface, they usually “just pop their nose up” above the water.

“In this part of the world, most people might think it’s a sea turtle,” Young said. “It’s not unusual to have a big loggerhead pop up here or there.”

There was no mistaking a manatee Clif Smith saw at his dock in Mount Gilead two summers ago.

“I had left a water hose dripping out there and he was sitting there, catching up as much of that fresh water as he could,” Smith recalled.

The manatee stayed about 30 minutes while Smith and some neighbors watched from a distance.

Having lived in the area for 30 years and never seen a manatee there before, Smith said the sighting was a surprise.

“You kind of expect to see dolphins every now and then, but this was something new,” he said.

Smith saw a manatee again last summer at the same location, but it was just a glimpse.

“I just saw a big tail kind of hit the mud and it took off,” he said.

He can’t be certain it was the same manatee, but he likes to think it is. He hasn’t seen it this year, but it’s still early.

The manatee in Pawleys Creek was seen on Memorial Day.

“It was brownish-white and had splotches,” said Hawkins, who is spending the summer on Pawleys Island at the home of his maternal grandparents, Jim and Liz Forrester. Hawkins was trying to catch shrimp with a cast net when his dad called his attention to the manatee.

“He wasn’t bothered by us,” Duncan said of the creature. “He could clearly see us standing on the dock, but he stayed right on our side of the creek.”

The manatee was there long enough for Duncan to take a number of pictures with his cell phone. The photos and his tale have been making the rounds.

“People have been asking how big it was,” he said. “It’s hard to say — I would say 6 feet or more.”

Adult manatees are about 10 feet long and weigh up to 1 ton, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

They are gentle and pose no threat to humans.

While it is fine to observe manatees, federal laws prohibit, hunting, playing with, touching, watering or feeding them.

As manatees begin showing up again in local waters, Natural Resources reminds boaters to watch out for the creatures. Boat strikes are one of the main dangers manatees face.

Collisions with boats are most likely to occur in shallow waters around docks and at the marsh edges. Boaters should 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 collides with a manatee, the boater should immediately contact the Coast Guard by radio or call Natural Resources at 800-922-5431.

Sightings of healthy, live manatees should also be reported. Call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 904-731-3079 or 904-655-0730.

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