Raleigh Ecological Services Field Office
Conserving the Nature of America

Manatee Viewing Guide for North Carolina

How do you spot a manatee? Manatees can be difficult to see, especially when you are in a motorboaton the water.You may see a swirl on the surface caused by the manatee when it dives; see an animal’s back, snout, tail, or flipper break the surface of the water; or you may only hear the manatee when it surfaces to breathe. In all of these instances, keeping your distance and passive observation are the best ways to proceed.

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Look, but don't touch manatees. Don't feed manatees or give them water.

Manatees are protected by law.

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The manatee is protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which makes it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal. Anyone convicted of violating this law is punishable by fine of up to $50,000 and/or one year in prison.


Do's and Don'ts

      • Don't try to entice manatees with food or fresh water. If manatees become accustomed to being around people, that can alter their behavior in the wild, perhaps causing them to lose their natural fear of boats and humans, making them more susceptible to harm. Offering food or water to manatees is prohibited and is considered a form of harassment. Feeding and watering manatees can prevent them from heading south when cold weather approaches.  Manatees that stay too long may not safely return to their winter home.

      • Do share the joy of wildlife viewing with others and promote the importance of not disturbing animals.

      • Don't disturbe manatees. Don't attempt to snag, hook, hold, grab, pinch, hit or ride a manatee. Do not pursue or chase a manatee if you see one while you are swimming, snorkeling, diving, paddling or operating a boat. Never poke, prod or stab a manatee with your hands, feet or any object. If a manatee avoids you, do not chase the animal for a closer view.

      • Do give manatees space to move. Avoid isolating or singling out an individual manatee.Keep hands and objects to yourself.

      • Do avoid excessive noise and splashing if a manatee appears nearby. The manatee may be resting and may surface without being aware of your presence. Noise and activity may startle the animal awake, which may put it in harm’s way if it is frightened and leaves the area.

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What to do when boating or jet skiing?

    • Wear polarized sunglasses to reduce glare on the surface of the water. This will enable you to see manatees more easily.

    • If you encounter a manatee, operate boats at idle and slow speed and move away from the animal.

    • Do not operate watercraft over largeconcentrations of manatees. Please do not discard monofilament line, hooks, or any other litter into the water. Manatees may ingest or become entangled in this debris and can become injured or even die.

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What can paddlers do?

    • Enjoy watching manatees but remember to keep your distance and limit your viewing time so that the manatees do not notice you or your vessel. Give manatees space to move freely in their habitat.

    • Avoid approaching or surrounding any manatees that you or others in your group come upon. Back away until you can observe the animals from a distance.

    • Wear polarized sunglasses so that you can see where manatees are located underwater.

    • Speak quietly and avoid making loud noises when you are near wildlife areas to avoid disturbance.

    • Paddle your vessel so that you avoid traveling over resting manatees. Manatees must surface to breath and will startle awake if you are in the way.

    • Research equipment attached to a manatee helps researchers locate and monitor the manatee for further study or health reasons. This equipment:  does not hurt the animal and should not be touched or removed.

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What can snorklers and divers do?


    • Do help protect manatees. The underwater environment is a unique place to visit – please respect its inhabitants.

    • Do not pursue or chase any manatees you see. If an animal stops feeding, swims toward you or changes its behavior, you are too close.

    • Observe resting manatees from a distance. Manatees that are resting may surface to breathe about every 20 minutes and can rest at any time during the day. Manatees must rest to conserve energy in order to stay warm during cold weather.

    • Do not try to entice manatees with food or fresh water.

    • Never poke, prod or stab manatees with your hands, feet or any object.

    • Use snorkel gear when diving near manatees as the sound of air bubbles from SCUBA gear can disturb them.

    • A manatee calf needs its mother to survive. Do not separate a mother and her calf if you swim near manatees.

Source: text adapted from MyFWC.com

Icons by Nounproject.com



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Manatees snouts above water while traveling. By FWS







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Please, call to report all manatee sighting, including any live, distressed, and dead manatees.

    • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Raleigh Ecological Services Field Office
      Call: 919-856-4520

    • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Law Enforcement - North Carolina
      Call: 919-856-4786, extension 34

    • North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
      Call:   800 662-7137

    • University of NC Wilmington
      Call: 910-962-7266
  • Please, be prepared to answer the following questions:
    1. What is the exact location of the animal?
    2. Is the manatee alive or dead?
    3. How long have you been observing the manatee?
    4. What is the approximate size of the manatee?
    6. Does the manatee have visible injuries?





Last Updated: December 5, 2016