BRUNSWICK — With sea turtles moving into coastal waters and manatees migrating from Florida, boaters on Georgia’s coast should be on the lookout for these big and rare animals.
Boat strikes are a common 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 differ on what to watch for in the coast’s murky waters. 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.
The best advice: Be aware, and be prepared to slow down or steer clear.
State Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Mark Dodd of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said that while sea turtles are considered common on the ocean side of barrier islands, they also frequent tidal waters.
“Any time you’re in the salt marsh areas, that’s a place to look for turtles,” he said.
Manatees drawn north by warming waters and abundant marsh grass and other vegetation are found in all Georgia tidal rivers, estuaries and near-shore marine waters, mostly east of I-95. In recent weeks, natural resources biologist Clay George of the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section has heard about manatees, or sea cows, sighted near Kings Bay naval submarine base, around Jekyll Island and in the Ogeechee River.
George said heeding low-speed and no-wake zones will reduce collision risks — so will sticking to the main channels when boating in tidal rivers and creeks. He said manatees “are often right along the edge of the marsh,” feeding on Spartina alterniflora, or salt marsh cordgrass.
Boaters who hit a sea turtle or manatee are urged to stand by and immediately call the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16 or DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363).
This provides biologists the best chance to help the animal and gather valuable scientific data. Boaters will not be charged if they were operating their boat responsibly and the collision was an accident.
Boaters and others also are encouraged to report any dead manatees and sea turtles they see. (If the turtle is tagged, include the tag color and number in the report, if possible.)
Dodd said 51 sea turtle strandings have been reported this year in Georgia, including 18 last week. The total is an increase compared to recent years, and it may reflect an increase of turtles in coastal waters. Boat collisions accounted for nearly 30 percent of the strandings.
No manatee mortalities have been documented in Georgia so far this year. About 25 percent of manatee mortalities in Georgia waters are caused by boat collisions.