With sea turtle and manatee sightings on the rise on 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. Sea turtles spend more time on the surface in spring, which warms their bodies but puts them more at-risk.
What can boaters do? Be vigilant, be ready to slow down or steer clear, and if they do run into a sea turtle or manatee, stand-by and immediately contact the DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363). This provides biologists the best chance to help these animals and gather data useful in conserving them. Boaters will not be charged if operating their boat responsibly and the collision was an accident.
State Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Mark Dodd of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources emphasized that sea turtles are not limited to the ocean side of barrier islands.
“They occur everywhere, not just in the ocean,” Dodd said. “They’re in the sounds, the estuaries, the tidal creeks.”
While nesting data suggests these federally threatened turtles are rebounding, boat strikes that kill or injure reproductive females undermine those gains. In 2016, about 22 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.
Manatees share a similar problem. These slow-moving mammals swim just below the surface, often putting them in harm’s way for oncoming boats. Watercraft collisions caused 27 percent of the manatee mortalities documented in the state since 2000.
While down-listed from endangered to threatened this spring, manatees remain an at-risk species.
These massive marine mammals migrate from Florida to Georgia each spring, attracted by abundant marsh grass and other aquatic vegetation. Some move back and forth between the states through summer, until colder water temperatures in fall draw them south to Florida for the winter.
But from April to October, manatees occur in all tidal waters throughout coastal Georgia, said wildlife biologist Clay George of DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.
This year, “we’ve had sighting reports across the entire coast, from Cumberland Island to Savannah,” George said. “They could be anywhere at this point. Boaters should be aware.”
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 deeper 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 and others are also encouraged to report any dead manatees and sea turtles they see. If the turtle is tagged, the tag color and number should be included 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.