BRUNSWICK — 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.
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 is to 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 frequent tidal waters.
“Sea turtles aren’t just in the ocean,” Dodd said. “They’re also in the tidal creeks and sounds.”
In 2012, 43 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. The usual is about 25 percent, Dodd said.
And while federally threatened loggerhead sea turtles reached a nesting milestone in the state last year — topping 2,000 nests — boat strikes that kill or injure reproductive females undermine those gains.
Manatees, federally listed as endangered, share a similar problem. Drawn north by warm waters and abundant marsh grass and other vegetation, manatees are found in all Georgia tidal rivers, estuaries and near-shore marine waters, mostly east of Interstate 95.
Survey flights two weeks ago spotted manatees, also known as sea cows, in Cumberland Sound near Kings Bay naval submarine base. Manatees also have been seen twice this year in the Brunswick area and as recently as Tuesday morning in the Savannah River, said natural resources biologist Clay George of DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.
“We would expect their numbers to be increasing over the next month,” George said.
That means boaters should also be on the lookout for these massive marine mammals.
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 main channels when boating in tidal rivers and creeks. George said manatees “are often right along the edge of the marsh,” feeding on salt marsh cordgrass.
Boaters who hit a manatee or sea turtle are urged to stand by and immediately call the DNR at 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. The DNR monitors sea turtle and manatee mortality through the Marine Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding and Salvage Networks.