Close Encounters Of The Manatee Kind (BLOG)

Not many people get consistently as close to wildlife in their natural habitats than boaters do. However, it is important to be mindful of both your and the animal's safety when boating.
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With the first full week of temperatures in the 70s behind us, at least here in the Northeast, we are running out of excuses to spend our days on the water. One of the most awesome privileges cruisers gain from leading a boating life is the unprecedented proximity to wildlife, both on shores not accessible by land transport and those that live beneath the waves.

However, with increased exposure and less distance of separation, there are risks involved for both boater and beast. Cruisers, especially those under power, should be mindful of aquatic wildlife and the potential of a collision.

Just this past week the Boston Globeran a story covering the sighting of over 50 (!!!) Right Whales being spotted near the shores of Cape Cod and the opening of the Cape Cod Canal.

“It is dangerous for the whales to be so close to the shore,” Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the right whale research program at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies told the Globe. “Particularly as fishermen begin working more in the spring. They can get hit by boats or become entangled in fishing gear.”

The same article later report one of the whales was in fact hit, though escaped unharmed save for a deep propeller scar.

Though rare, it is not unheard of for offshore cruisers to hit whales and other sizeable sea creatures. In an excellent ShopTalk column that appeared in our October 2014 issue, delivery Captain, Devin Zwick, recalls his a near mockery of an owner paranoid with the possibility of hitting a while.

“I had to chuckle earlier when Adam told me his primary reason for installing the FLIR thermal camera on Spirit of Adventure was due to his major fear of running into a whale at night,” said Zwick.

Of course, as with all things karma, later in the night Devin is woken by his client, Adam, yelling, “Adam was yelling, “We hit a whale! WE HIT A WHALE!”

Lesson learned as they say. You can read the rest of Devin’s tale here.

A manatee being cared for by FWC volunteers. The white lines are scars from a propeller strike.

A manatee being cared for by FWC volunteers. The white lines are scars from a propeller strike.

It should also be noted that coastal boaters are not free of these risks, namely those in Florida waters heavily inhabited by Manatees. Especially in the spring months, when Mantees tend to disperse along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, the chances of an encounter increases.

“Boaters can enjoy opportunities to observe one of Florida’s unique species but to avoid colliding with manatees, people on the water should take basic steps such as slowing down, watching out for the animals and complying with regulations in manatee zones,” writes the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) in a press release.

As a preventative measure, in effect from April 1 through November 15, seasonal manatee zones require boaters slow down in certain areas to prevent manatees from being struck by motorboats.

Though they aren’t the ones facing death-by-propeller, boaters are just as at risk. Collisions can cause endless damage to your boat and even disable or sink boaters offshore. The added bonus is that many captains face heavy fines of even jail time if found to be negligent or responsible for harming wildlife.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

In accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act, cruisers must reduce speed and remember not to intentionally approach within 100 yards of the animals. A violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act may result in fines or civil penalties of up to $10,000 or criminal penalties of up to $20,000 plus imprisonment and/or seizure of vessel and other personal property.

The FWC recommends wearing polarized lenses to help spot dark objects below the surface and to watch for disturbances in the waves from fins and bubbles cause from breaching. Chances are if you spot a dark patch in the water you won’t want to collide with whatever it is, love or otherwise.

Of course, the most invaluable practice for any boater to adopt is to pay attention and always keep watch on what’s ahead. Collision avoidance, like most boating safety, all begins with awareness.

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