Fall is a great time of year for being out on the coastal waters of Alabama and Mississippi. The temperatures are a bit cooler, there are fewer vessels, more migrating birds, some leaves are changing colors, and we still have spectacular sunsets.
With the recent August death of Zewie, a manatee well-known in coastal Alabama, from a probable boat strike (the first such death recorded in Alabama), now is a good time for some tips on how to boat more responsibly for the safety of our marine animals.
Manatees, dolphins and sea turtles all need air to survive, so while they can hold their breath for several minutes, they must all surface periodically. Manatees and sea turtles are not particularly fast moving creatures and dolphins also do not move with speed all the time, so they are all vulnerable to being hit by a fast-moving boat – from personal watercraft to commercial vessels.
So if you’re one of those lucky people to be on the water, what can you do to avoid hitting one of these beloved creatures?
- Polarized sunglasses can help you see better on the water.
- If there’s more than one person on the boat, have one or more of your passengers help you keep a lookout for these creatures. It can be a great experience to see these animals in their natural environment and enjoy their company for a few moments.
If you do come across one (or more) of these animals, what should you do?
- Ideally, put your engine in neutral and view them from a recommended distance of at least 50 yards for dolphins and sea turtles and 100 yards for manatees.
- If you can’t put your engine in idle, at least move in a predictable manner, approach the animal from behind (rather than head-on), and don’t trap the animals between vessels or between your vessel and the shore and leave them an “escape route."
- Remember that attempting to pursue, herd or chase marine mammals is prohibited by law, as is feeding or attempting to feed them. Also be mindful that these are wild animals and that touching or swimming with them may be harmful to the animals or people and may result in a fine.
- Keep a pair of binoculars on your boat is a great way to see the animals up close without getting too close to the animals themselves.
If you see a manatee in Alabama or Mississippi, please notify the Manatee Sighting Network at www.manatee.disl.org. Sick, injured or dead manatees may be reported to 1-866-493-5803.
If you come across a sea turtle or dolphin or whale that appears to be sick or injured or is already dead, please report it to: for sea turtles (1-866-SEA-TURTLE in Alabama or 228-549-1628 in Mississippi) or for dolphins or whales (1-877-WHALE-HELP in Alabama or 1-888-806-1674 in Mississippi).
Please note the exact location of the animal (GPS coordinates, if possible), what species if possible, size, color and physical characteristics, including whether the animal is still alive, how many animals are present, what the current environmental conditions are (weather, sea state, tide) and how you can be contacted if needed.
You should not attempt to push a stranded animal back out to sea but do try to keep its skin moist and cool with wet towels or splashing it with water. Remember that these animals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act and handling by unauthorized persons is illegal.
For more information, you can check out www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr or www.dolphinsmart.org. Download the “Dolphin & Whale 911” app for iPhone or Android for more guidance on how to assist or report a stranded marine mammal.