SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Those who think they may have seen a manatee swimming through marinas and waters in the Cape Fear region recently are not seeing things.
A local researcher has found a constant presence of manatees that traveled north of their natural Florida habitat each summer to swim and graze on sea grass in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.
Erin Cummings is part of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s marine mammal stranding program as well as a marine mammal aerial survey. As a lab technician for the program, Cummings published her research on manatees that charted reported sightings of manatees along the North Carolina coast back to the 1990s. Cummings even discovered some reported manatee sightings in North Carolina dating to the 1930s.
The animals swim through open ocean, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, sounds and bays, rivers and creeks and marinas, Cummings wrote in her research publication.
So far there have been nine manatee sightings in North Carolina in 2015. Cummings estimates there could be anywhere from 20 to 30 manatees swimming through state waters this summer, but it is difficult to count.
“It’s hard to say because we don’t have a survey effort right now. We just have to rely on people calling in to report manatee sightings,” she said.
Elisa Roels said a manatee swam under her dock Sunday on River Road in New Hanover County. She described the sighting as “the coolest experience.” At first her son thought the manatee was a whale, but Roels noticed the tail curving downward and the animal’s spotted skin.
“It would be awesome to see if someone else has seen it,” Roels said
The StarNews took to social media Tuesday to ask if any other Cape Fear residents or visitors had seen a manatee recently. Three people responded with reports and photos of a manatee two weeks ago — one near Myrtle Grove, one near The Tides community and another at Inlet Watch.
In both 2012 and 2014 the state had 30 reported manatee sightings from Wilmington to areas of Pamlico Sound and the Outer Banks, Cummings said. Reported sightings in 2012 nearly doubled from 2011, when 17 were reported.
There were 16 sightings in 2011 in Virginia, and that number dropped to seven in 2012.
The large, vegetarian mammals that feed mostly on sea grass and fresh water begin to arrive in northern areas like North Carolina and Virginia as early as April and stay as late as October, Cummings said. The mammal stranding program out of UNCW just logs the sightings of manatees people call in and report, but if one is seen after waters cool in November through March, Cummings said the program might try to relocate the animal to Florida for its own safety.
“Rapid cooling of water temperatures in the fall can be detrimental to their survival in this region,” Cummings wrote in her publication.
Cummings does not know what is bringing the manatees north, but said it is something researchers hope to learn.
“All of the researchers in South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia have said they have seen an increase in the manatee sightings in the last few years,” Cummings said. “They are talking of doing tagging programs to see where the manatees go up north of Florida and try and figure out why they are migrating.”
She speculates the manatees could be visiting the state for new growth in the sea grass they feed on, or a rise in manatee populations in Florida could be pushing other manatees north for food. Manatees could be migrating because of warmer water temperatures, or maybe for reasons unknown, she said.