Jul 19 2016

Manatees Love Folly Beach, Too! Say Hello to a Different Kind of Tourist Season

With Charleston being crowned the best city in the world recently by Travel + Leisure (and Folly getting a shout-out for being a big part of the Holy City’s appeal), an influx of visitors eager to tour our beautiful beach town is to be expected — it was only a matter of time.

But one new traveler to our coast is taking residents by surprise: a manatee!

“I was at Morris Island with my daughters and their friend,” James Island’s Sonya Capps said of the unexpected encounter on Sunday afternoon. “The girls were walking around, and I was standing on the shore watching the dolphins. We saw at least nine different dolphins that day and, fascinated by them, I started recording them. As I was making a video of the dolphins, something appeared in the water.”

At first, Capps explained, she didn’t know what to make of the cloudy shape — “I just knew it was big.”

As she continued to peer out toward the Morris Island Lighthouse, though, it became readily apparent that the slow-moving creature just off Folly’s shore was a manatee. Capps got further confirmation when another beachgoer said he’d had a similar experience while swimming earlier in the day.

But what was the gentle giant doing so far up the Eastern seaboard? In a word, migrating.

Manatees are an endemic species in Florida but, beginning when the water temperatures along the South Carolina coast rise into the upper 60s, these peaceful mammals migrate into our native waters. Here, they cruise through our tidal rivers, estuaries and, yes, even deeper channels like the Harbor throughout the summer months.

When cooler weather starts to temper our warm summer waters, the manatees sojourn back to Florida. This typically takes place between September and October.

Occasionally, a reticent manatee takes a bit too long saying goodbye to the South Carolina coast (who can blame them?) and falls victim to cold stress. Such was the case in December of 2015, when the SeaWorld Orlando Rescue team — with a little help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service, and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources — rescued and rehabilitated a 1,300 lb male manatee trapped in the upper reaches of the Cooper River.

Stories like that of Goose, the nickname given to the rescued manatee, highlight the importance of alerting the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to any sightings.

Tagged with a radio transmitter during his rehabilitation, Goose returned to the South Carolina coast this June. By reporting manatee sightings, the public can help track the movements and migratory patterns of these beloved creatures which, in turn, helps keep them safe.

According to Capps, reporting a manatee sighting is pretty straightforward. “It was a very easy online process. They sent me an email. The person I need to talk to is out of the office today, but will be back tomorrow to talk to me about it,” she said.

In a blog post last month, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources outlined the process Capps is currently going through, urging locals to keep an eye out for these docile sea-dwellers.

Among the advice? Do not attempt to approach manatees in a boat, as there is the inherent risk of injuring them with the propellers. In general, it’s best to admire manatees from a distance.

“Feeding and water manatees is illegal and encourages the mammals to spend time at docks and marinas,” explained DNR veterinarian Al Segars, “making them more susceptible to boat strikes, which is one of the main causes of mortality for manatees.”

If you do find yourself in close proximity to one of these “sea cows,” count yourself lucky — Capps sure does. “It was a very exciting thing to see,” she shared. “I love the ocean and all the wonders it holds!”

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