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Manatees continue to linger off NC coast, raising questions about future management plans

UNCW's Marine Mammal Stranding Network received an image of the injured Southport manatee on October 25, 2023.
Anonymous/Courtesy of UNCW Marine Mammal Stranding Network
UNCW's Marine Mammal Stranding Network received an image of the Southport manatee on October 25, 2023.

North Carolina scientists are continuing to sound the alarm about the presence of manatees showing up off the coast. There are around four that have been sighted recently in the Cape Fear region.

There was one manatee in Southport that researchers from UNCW’s marine stranding program were recently tracking at the end of October. From images sent by the community, they saw concerning injuries on its back, although scientists say that about 96% of manatees have these scar patterns.

Dr. Michael Tift, the director of the program, said it was likely from a recent boat strike — and that he and his team were considering capturing the animal to send back to Florida. But luckily, with the help of the community, they located it as it was headed to safer waters on its own.

“It is pretty easy to identify this animal with the scars on its back. It took a couple of days, but then we did actually get members of the public that identified that the animal was moving south, and so that was an extremely good sign for us. It told us that the animal is still healthy enough to be moving, and it's moving in the right direction,” Tift said.

The last time it was sighted, according to Tift, was near the Apache Pier, near Myrtle Beach.

The same manatee sited on its way back south.
Anonymous/Courtesy of UNCW Marine Mammal Stranding Program
The same manatee sited on its way back south.

It was a relief not to have to move the animal, according to UNCW’s Stranding Coordinator Dr. Tiffany Keenan.

“Anytime you have to take a marine mammal out of the water that is extremely stressful for them, and they risk other health issues. But you have to weigh those risks and consequences, sometimes [it’s] the best thing to move that animal south if it's getting really cold,” Keenan said.

The program did recently receive some specialized stretchers for the manatees that were donated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

With this new equipment, she said, they’re able to respond more quickly, but says they still need more of the appropriate gear to transport them as they can sometimes “weigh more than whales.”

That equipment can help UNCW work with organizations like SeaWorld or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to help relocate them to their natural habitats.

Concerns as manatees migrate north

A serious concern both Keenan and Tift noted was the lack of boating regulations around speeding in the region.

“We don’t have the restrictions like they do in Florida. We don't have the safe areas for manatees to hang out. I do think that we're going to have to work with the North Carolina legislature and other folks in the near future to help protect manatees because they're coming in large numbers, whether we'd like it or not, and they're gonna be here for the long term,” Tift said.

Tift is referring to the rate at which climate change is warming the North Carolina waters, causing manatees to linger into winter, which means they have the potential to die of cold shock. Tift also reiterated how important it is not to provide food or water, giving them another reason to stay beside the warmer climate.

Both Tift and Keenan said there’s research to show that a reduction in boat speeds increases manatee survival rates.

From the studies on manatees, Tift said, “In general, the important message is that manatees are extremely slow-moving animals that spend a lot of time near the surface, making it likely that they will encounter boats. This is dangerous for the manatees, which highlights the importance of finding the best strategies to reduce boat strikes on [them].”

If you spot a manatee, UNCW’s marine mammal stranding program wants to know. To report one, you can call 910-515-7354 or you can fill out this form.


Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR