CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — The warm, sheltered waters of Narragansett Bay often attract seals, and just last month, sharks were spotted swimming right up to Block Island’s Old Harbor basin. Now Rhode Island can add another sea creature sighting to the mix to close out the summer: a gentle, 8-foot-long manatee.
A manatee was spotted recently in Quonochontaug Pond, a saltwater pond in Charlestown, according to the state Department of Environmental Management. It’s the first known manatee sighting in Rhode Island’s waters since 2016.
The department, along with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is asking locals to report any sightings to the Mystic Aquarium animal rescue hot line (860-572-5955, ext. 107).
State biologists said the spotted manatee “looked a little thin,” DEM spokesman Mike Healey said on a call Monday night. “But then again, they probably just swam about 1,000 miles up the east coast.”
While these oddly graceful animals are closely related to elephants, manatees are often nicknamed sea cows. They are known for a diet of sea grasses and marine plants, and can travel hundreds of miles throughout the year, but are rarely found in the Northeast.
The ocean is full of surprises🌊! A manatee was recently spotted in Quonochontaug Pond. DEM, @USFWS, and @mysticaquarium are aware of the manatee + are monitoring it. Sightings can be reported to the Mystic Aquarium Animal Rescue Hotline at 860-572-5955 x107. (1/7) pic.twitter.com/lsJSjQPQNI— Rhode Island Dept of Environmental Management (@RhodeIslandDEM) September 11, 2023
Before one was spotted in 2016, the last manatee sighting in Rhode Island was in 2006, according to the DEM. In both cases, the manatees traveled north to Falmouth, Mass.. Healey said state marine officials don’t believe this manatee will travel any farther north.
”They generally need water 68 degrees or warmer. The pond was around 71 or 72,” he said. “Obviously, this is New England and the season is going to change and the water is going to get a whole lot colder soon.
”We’re hoping the manatee realizes that and starts heading to open water” to swim south, said Healey. If not, he said, Mystic Aquarium could get involved.
Manatees live in “brackish and freshwater” coastal areas, the DEM said in a tweet on Monday. They prefer warmer waters, and typically stay near the Florida peninsula and Gulf Coast during the winter months. Weighing between 800 and 1,200 pounds, these marine animals can eat up to 150 pounds of plants per day.
Healey said DEM crews at the pond found that the vegetation levels “looked healthy,” allowing the manatee to graze for the time being. “But here’s the line you have to walk as a ecological steward: You want the best for the animal’s survival, but you don’t want that animal to feel ‘too comfortable’ since it’s not in its natural habitat.“
State marine biologists believe this manatee may have “hugged the entire coastline” to get to Rhode Island. Manatees cannot typically survive in waters that are more than 20 feet deep, said Healey.
These air-breathing herbivores are at risk due to human activity. They are slow moving, according to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and are unable to swim quickly away from boats, leading to collisions that can cause fatal injuries.
Manatees are protected by the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, which has helped the population grow. When aerial surveys began in 1991, there were fewer than 1,300 in Florida’s waters. Today, there are more than 6,300 there, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
There are an estimated 13,000 manatees in the United States.
“We ask the public to protect this visitor by keeping an appropriate distance,” the DEM wrote on social media. “Slowing down [and] giving marine wildlife space reduces the chances of collisions.”
The DEM asked for boaters in the area to use caution and be on the lookout for the manatee. The National Marine Fisheries Service advises boaters and swimmers to stay at least 150 feet away from the animal.
“If you see the animal, keep a no-wake speed until it is a safe distance from your boat,” said DEM. “Please do not attempt to feed or touch the manatee.”