The winter storm that hit the Lowcountry this week brought more than icy roads and snow days.
It brought a dead manatee to a Hilton Head Island beach.
The discovery of the young manatee’s body was reported to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources around 2:30 p.m. Thursday near Port Royal Plantation’s beach club on the north end of the island, according to Amber Kuehn, volunteer coordinator for the S.C. Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
“A resident of Port Royal Plantation called the stranding network and it was reported to me as a seal,” Kuehn said.
The presence of manatees in local waters is rare at this time of year, Kuehn said.
Kaye Black said she and her Slovakian exchange student were walking the beach when they saw and reported the manatee.
“There was snow on the beach and we saw a lot of interesting things,” Black said. “We saw normal things on the beach like jellyfish, star fish and stingrays. But then we saw this thing and we said ‘what in the world is it?’ It was a manatee.”
Several organizations worked in collaboration to get the animal off the beach and to the Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton for a necropsy, Kuehn said.
“We are assuming it suffered from hypothermia, but the necropsy will verify that,” Kuehn said. “... It’s really uncommon. Usually the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service make an effort to make sure the manatees get back. This one was younger.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Kuehn said, makes every effort to make sure marine mammals travel from Charleston to Florida before the warm water they need to survive turns colder. Manatees, she said, need at least 70 degree water to survive. Friday’s water temperature was around 54 degrees.
“This one was not captured and was headed back south, but didn’t quite make it,” Kuehn said.
In the last three years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Charleston has started capturing manatees that linger in the area too long into the fall and winter. Once captured, the animals are transported to Florida and released, according to Melanie Olds, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Since the (manatee) population is rebounding, it’s doing much better and with more numbers,” Olds said. “They’ve been coming up further north.”
“Coming into South Carolina, we have really good forage to eat in our marshes, and sometimes (the manatees) unfortunately don’t head back to the water in Florida soon enough. We are trying to work on why they are staying here longer and get them to move on their own.”
The Charleston branch of the department moved took 10 manatees to Florida in late November and two more made the trip at the beginning of December, Olds said.
From reported sightings of the animals, Olds said the department believes one manatee got away and avoided capture.
“That has happened every year,” Olds said. “They aren’t dumb animals. They know when someone is trying to capture them. They get wise to the trap.”
Olds said whether the manatee found on Hilton Head was the one that got away in Charleston could be determined during the necropsy and by matching markings and scars on the animal to photos of reported manatees.
The manatee was picked up around 8 a.m. Friday after Kuehn called Art Smith with American Pride Waste Solutions. Smith, Kuehn said, volunteered his services and put the animal on a front loader to take to the mariculture center.
Due to the weather conditions, Olds said the U.S. Wildlife Service will not conduct the necropsy until early next week to better determine the animal’s cause of death.
“We’ve lived here 40 years and we’ve seen manatees around the Skull Creek Boathouse, but we’ve never seen them in the ocean,” Black said. “Poor thing. How confused could it have been?”