ST. MARYS — Manatees may move slowly, but they are capable of traveling farther most people would think possible.
They have been seen as far north as Rhode Island and the Hudson River in New York. But a recent study of manatees tagged with radio tracking devices off the coast of Cumberland Island has revealed unexpected behavior.
Researchers recently tracked a group of the animals in open ocean about three miles off the Georgia coast.
Trip Kolkmeyer, a marine mammal technician with Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said it was surprising to see the manatees swimming so far off the coast. He and other researchers believe they have an explanation.
“It looks like a female was pursued by a group of males,” he said.
Five manatees were tagged in May off the coast of Cumberland Island and three more were taggeed earlier this month to track their movements and study their behavior, Kolkmeyer said.
While researchers attach a radio tag to a captured manatee, a veterinarian takes skin and blood samples and conducts a brief exam to gauge its physical condition.
“As far as I know, they seem healthy,” he said.
The tags, which are capable of transmitting a signal for more than two years, are designed to break off easily if they get tangled as a way to prevent endangering the manatees. It also makes it challenging to track them.
Three of the five manatees tagged in May have lost their tracking devices, which is why three more were tagged earlier this month, Kolkmeyer said. One tag was recovered near docks on St. Simons Island and another tag appears to have been bitten by an alligator, he said.
“Alligators typically leave manatees alone, but they have been known to attack the tags,” he said.
Researchers are learning that manatees in the region often swim in high-traffic areas such as the jetties at the south end of Cumberland Island. Individual manatees can be identified by telltale scars from boat propellers, he said.
“They’re putting themselves in the middle of vessel traffic that is concentrated,” Kolkmeyer said.
There are no plans to tag more manatees this year. DNR officials are asking the public to help with the study by reporting anytime they see a tagged manatee. They are asking for the time, date, location, tag color and if other manatees are nearby. They are also encouraging people to take photos of the animals.