It’s a made-for-television moment that’s been repeated and posted online thousands of times: a peaceful, potbellied manatee drinking water from a hose or taking food from a delighted onlooker. \ Except the end result of 60 seconds spent feeding or watering the sea cow may not be so joyous. Those who give the animals a drink from a hose or feed it lettuce could be placing the manatee in harm’s way, according to S.C. Department of Natural Resources veterinarian Al Segars.
Feeding or watering manatees alters their behavior, putting them at risk of being hit and killed by a boat as they linger around populated marinas for more feeding opportunities.
“It’s more than just a Disney moment,” Segars said. “You put the manatees at risk just to get a 60-second YouTube video.” Hilton Head Island is one of the two areas in the state where manatees are fed or watered the most, along with Charleston, Segars said.
Two manatees were killed near Hilton Head marinas in 2013. In 2012, a manatee that had been watered was found dead on Hilton Head after it was hit by a boat propeller that sliced into its lung. During its necropsy, it was found to be pregnant, Segars said.
Other manatees have been injured by boats but survived, bearing the scars, he said.
Many people who feed or water manatees simply don’t know about the possible ramifications of the seemingly harmless act — or the potential legal complications. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, feeding and watering manatees is punishable by fines of up to $100,000 or jail time, Segars said.
Segars said signs are being placed at marinas around Beaufort County to warn boaters about the dangers of interacting with manatees, but some continue to do so. Segars said DNR was contacted about a woman who continued to give water to a manatee, even after she was told it was illegal.
“They don’t need the freshwater,” he said of manatees. “They’ve done quite well without it. It’s like giving a child a bag of candy. These animals have learned to be beggars. By watering or feeding them, their behavior is reinforced.”
Segars has seen the results of these behavioral alterations, as it is his job to retrieve the dead manatees in the area.
“I’m the guy who has to pull them from the water, so it’s personal to me,” he said. “It’s important that we don’t do anything to harm them. Don’t interact or feed them. Observe and enjoy them from a distance.”