BRUNSWICK — With sea turtle and manatee sightings increasing along the Georgia coast, boaters should be on the lookout for these large 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.
There are different tips on what to look out for in the murky waters of the coast. A “footprint” of vertebrae can mark a 9-foot long manatee underwater. A 300-pound loggerhead sea turtle may only show its head when it surfaces. Sea turtles spend more time on the surface in spring, putting them at greater risk of being hit by a boat.
Boaters should be alert, ready to slow or take evasive action, and if they encounter a sea turtle or manatee, stand by and contact the DNR immediately at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363). This offers biologists the best chance to help these animals and gather data useful for their conservation. Boaters will not be charged if they operate their boat responsibly and the collision was an accident.
Mark Dodd, coordinator of the state’s sea turtle program, a senior wildlife biologist at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, stressed that sea turtles are not limited to the ocean side of barrier islands.
“They’re found everywhere, not just in the ocean,” Dodd said. “They are in the sounds, the estuaries, the tideways.”
While nesting data suggests that federally threatened loggerhead fish are holding their own, boat attacks that kill or injure reproductive females are a significant threat. Of the 84 dead or injured sea turtles found on Georgia beaches last year, 45 percent of those who could be assessed had sustained injuries resulting from being hit by a boat.
Manatees share a similar problem. These large, slow-moving mammals swim just below the surface, often putting them in danger for oncoming boats. Watercraft collisions have caused about 28 percent of manatee deaths documented in the state since 2000.
West Indian manatees, including the Florida manatee subspecies found in Georgia, are protected under the Endangered Species Act (they are listed as threatened) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Manatees migrate from Florida to Georgia every spring, attracted by lush marsh grass and other aquatic vegetation. Some move back and forth between states in the summer, until the fall’s colder water temperatures draw them south to Florida for the winter. But as early as March through November, manatees are found in all tidal waters along the entire Georgia coast, said senior wildlife biologist Clay George of the DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section.
As in 2021, another factor comes into play this year. Reduced food resources at key Florida wintering grounds have resulted in the deaths of 300 or more manatees along the Atlantic Seaboard. This situation, which is part of an ongoing unusual death case declared by federal authorities, means Georgia’s swamp habitats are much more critical when the animals start migrating north.
“Manatees feed on smooth cord grass and other emergent vegetation that is abundant in our freshwater and brackish marshes,” George said. “When manatees arrive in Georgia, they have virtually unlimited food.”
Boaters can reduce the risk they pose to manatees by observing slow and alert zones, particularly near docks where the large mammals feed on algae that grow on structures. George also advised sticking to the deeper channels when boating in tidal rivers and creeks. Manatees “are often right at the edge of the swamp,” he said, feeding on Spartina alterniflora, or salt marsh curtain grass.
Boaters and others are also encouraged to report any dead manatees and sea turtles they see.
DNR monitors mortality of sea turtles and manatees through the sea turtle and marine mammal beaching and rescue nets. The information gathered, including autopsies to determine cause of death, provides the primary index of threats to these animals in Georgia’s coastal waters.
Report stranded sea turtles in Georgia by calling DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363). Stranding updates are available at seaturtle.org/strand/summary (select Georgia from “Select a program”).
Manatees sometimes gather in groups to socialize. Large “herds” for mating can include more than 20 individuals.
Boaters can help protect manatees by:
– Look for manatees before you start your boat’s engine.
– Be careful when navigating in shallow water and at the edge of a swamp. Manatees cannot dive away from boats in these areas.
— Observe “slow speed”, “no wake” and manatee warning signs, especially near docks.
– Wear polarized sunglasses to reduce glare and make it easier to spot manatees below the surface.
– Watch out for traces of large eddies in the water, known as footprints, which can be caused by manatees diving away from the boat.
— Never feed manatees or give them fresh water. This could teach the animals to approach docks, putting them at greater risk of boat attack.
— Never chase, harass or play with manatees. It can be harmful to manatees and is illegal.
From sea turtles to bald eagles, DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section works to conserve rare and other Georgia wildlife that are not legally fished or hunted, as well as rare plants and natural habitats. The agency relies primarily on fundraisers, grants and contributions. That makes public support key.
Georgians can help by supporting the state’s Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund. Here’s how:
— Buy a DNR eagle or monarch butterfly license plate or renew one of the older license plate designs including the hummingbird. Most fees are for wildlife. Upgrade to a Wild tag for just $25 more than a standard plate. Details below georgiawildlife.com/licenseplates.
– Donate to gooutdoorsgeorgia.com. Click on “Licenses and Permissions” and log in to grant. There’s even an option to round up wild animals.
— Donate to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund when filing state income taxes – line 30 on Form 500 or line 10 on Form 500EZ. Giving is easy and every donation helps.
— Donate directly to the agency. Learn more at georgiawildlife.com/donations.
— Visit georgiawildlife.com/conservation/annualreport to see how your support is being used for wildlife.