There are few things as glorious as spotting a manatee while out exploring Hilton Head Island’s tidal creeks and rivers.
This roly-poly mammal is so unique in appearance that seeing a paddle tail flip up out of the water, or that signature nose breaking the surface of the water as it grabs a snoot full of air, feels a bit like discovering a rare magical beast.
Manatees are a relatively new addition to our tidal saltmarsh ecosystem.
“Protect Our Manatee” signs have been posted in marinas within the last few years. We may be excited about being able to see these creatures without having to travel south. However, their presence in our environment is, in fact, a strong indicator of climate change. Each year, the temperatures of our local waters climb a little higher in the summer months. This makes the trip north for more abundant food resources attractive for the warm water-loving West Indian Manatee.
West Indian Manatees are weirdly wonderful in many ways.
Weighing in at 1,000 pounds or more in maturity, they do not have a continuous layer of blubber (like a whale) to keep them warm. When aquatic temperatures drop below 68 degrees, they must seek warmer water to survive. During the winter months, the manatee hangs out primarily in Florida waters. As summer heats up, manatees migrate as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Manatees are not fast swimmers.
While capable of speeds up to 20 mph, they generally putter along at around 3 to 5 mph. Due to these slow speeds, algae and barnacles tend to grow on their skin, resulting in a rather unpleasant, odiferous experience. On a positive note, the algae helps protect the manatees from the harmful rays of the sun. Talk about green sunscreen!
Manatees are primarily vegetarians.
They spend six to eight hours a day eating sea grass and other aquatic vegetation. It is this dietary trait — as well as their slow, lumbering mannerisms — that earn them the nickname “sea cow.”
Manatees have no natural predators.
Even when a manatee encounters a 12-foot alligator, it will simply nudge the gator out of the way so it can continue on its journey. Sadly, the manatee’s lack of natural predators has not kept it out of danger. Boat strikes and human intrusion into manatee habitat and feeding environments has driven this species almost to extinction. Even though the state of Florida instituted manatee protection laws many years ago, their numbers sunk to the low 4,000s by 2013. Thanks to conservation efforts in Florida and along our Southern coast, manatees were moved to the threatened species list in 2017. However, there is still much work to be done to protect this exotic wonder.
There are simple things that can be done to help protect our local manatee population and to support conservancy. First and foremost, don’t litter and NEVER use plastic bags. Trash in our waterways damages the manatee’s habitat. There are many “adopt-a-manatee” programs online. These dollars go specifically to support manatee conservation. Report live manatee sightings to the SCDNR at www.scdnr.gov. To report an injured manatee in South Carolina, contact the 24-hour SCDNR hotline at 800-922-5431.
By Anneliza Itkor, Outside Hilton Head
Increase your odds of spotting one of these marine miracles by getting outside into our tidal saltmarshes. Outside Hilton Head offers guided kayak and standup paddling nature excursions that can increase your chances of a manatee sighting. Our experienced guides know where to look and what to look for. To book an outing, call 843-686-6996 or visit www.outsidehiltonhead.com.