Interacting with manatees puts them at risk

Protecting the manatees is a high priority for DNR.

JAMES ISLAND, S.C. (WCIV) -- People feeding, watering and petting manatees is an ongoing problem along the Southeastern coast, but interacting with them is illegal because it can put these endangered species at risk.

The Charleston Harbor is just one of the spots in the Lowcountry where manatees have been spotted. Seeing one can be a neat experience but it's important for people to keep their distance.

"They are endangered," said Al Segars, veterinarian with the state's Department of Natural Resources. "They are protected under federal laws -- the Marine Mammal Protection Act -- so feeding, watering, riding, petting, harassing is all a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act."

These interactions, which may seem harmless at the time, can put the animals in grave danger.

"It's generally something people just don't understand that by altering their behavior they are really putting them at an increased risk to the most dangerous thing in their world which is boat strikes," said Segars. "If you change their behavior and they lose that fear of humans then it's going to be a bad outcome for the animal."

For people who do happen to see a manatee while out on the water, DNR recommends following these tips.

"Turn the motor off, just patiently enjoy and watch and when they move off then crank up and go your own way don't pursue them," said Segars. "If you are in a marina and you see manatees, certainly do not offer them water. They love fresh water; they don't need it."

Marinas and boat slips can be the most dangerous places because of the high boat traffic.

"It's heartbreaking when you see one of these animals that have been killed by a boat strike. As we get more people here along the Southeastern coast we get more boats, so their natural risk of living out there increases every year with more boats in the water. Certainly the feeding, watering and baiting them to marinas and docks just kicks that up to a whole new level," said Segars. "Even though you are trying to make friends with this manatee you are basically signing a death warrant very often by making it hang around a very dangerous place."

Segars says people who see someone feeding or harassing a manatee, report it to DNR. The 24 hour hotline is 1-800-922-5431. The same number can also called to report a dead or injured animal.

To report live manatees, click here.