With the help of satellites, a group of tagged manatees is helping to reveal how the giant mammals traverse the waters along Georgia’s coast.
Workers from wildlife agencies and organizations in Georgia and Florida netted eight manatees in Cumberland Sound in late May and early June, The Savannah Morning News reported .
With a helicopter helping spot the animals, a custom manatee capture boat was used to encircle them with a net so they could be examined and fitted with satellite tracking devices.
The GPS data showed that the manatees regularly venture into Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, they’re able to find artificial freshwater sources to drink from, and a few have traveled into the open Atlantic venturing as far as five miles offshore.
Biologists are also confirming things they long suspected but had no way to prove, such as the importance of the Intracoastal Waterway — a narrow passage of natural and dredged rivers between the mainland and barrier islands – for manatees moving along the Georgia coast.
“The Intracoastal Waterway is like a manatee highway,” DNR wildlife biologist Clay George said. “But the ICW is also a primary passageway for boats moving up and down the coast, so this behavior may place manatees at added risk of boat strikes.”
Boat strikes are a major source of injury and mortality for manatees, a population that is estimated at 6,000 individuals in the Southeast. Since 2000, boat collisions have caused 27 percent of manatee mortalities documented in Georgia, highlighting the need to better understand manatee movements in the state, the Savannah newspaper reported.
The project is expected to help document migratory paths and habitat use in the region, collect baseline data to help assess manatee health and map the protected species’ movements near the submarine base. It involves Sea to Shore Alliance, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Georgia Aquarium.
The partners have tagged 13 manatees over the course of three annual springtime tagging efforts. Only one remains tagged from a previous year and it is in the Savannah area.
Two other tagged manatees have traveled the length of the Georgia coast, including one that went to the Charleston, South Carolina area but shed its tag earlier this month.
“We’re hoping some of the new batch will migrate up the coast toward Savannah, or even South Carolina,” George said.
Manatees migrate from Florida to Georgia in spring, drawn by abundant marsh grass and other aquatic vegetation.
So far, most of the manatees have spent the winter months in Brevard County in east-central Florida, although one migrated more than 500 miles and wintered in Fort Lauderdale.