Once, maybe twice a year, visitors enjoy a rare sighting of a summer guest — a manatee swimming near the pier. Just hang over the rail, and watch its huge body being propelled by big, paddle-like flippers.

These gentle giants move slowly through the water and graze on plants much like cows in a field hence the nickname, “sea cows.” They can measure up to 13-feet long and weigh 1,300 pounds!

Although they’re known to hang out mostly in Florida waters, a manatee was recently spotted on a clear, warm water day at Rodanthe Pier on Hatteras Island.

It's even possible this is the same one that swings by Jennette’s each year, but it’s really hard to tell — especially if there aren’t any identifying markings.

The large lumbering swimmers occasionally slip into sound-side waters, and during the past eight years since the Jennette’s Pier reopened in 2011, there have been numerous sightings reported of manatees finding their way around Colington Island in Kill Devil Hills.

More recently, Zachary Stike of Suffolk, Virginia, spotted a manatee while boating in the Currituck Sound near Barry’s at Walnut Island. He captured several photos and videos of the docile marine mammal and shared them on Facebook.

“It picked up its head and looked right at me,” Stike said by phone the following day.

Because he knew this was a bit unusual, Stike reached out and called the Outer Banks Marine Mammal Stranding hotline at 252-455-9654. He spoke with Karen Clark, who heads up this group of mostly volunteer responders.

She thanked him for calling it in, and together they came up with estimated coordinates so she could make a record of the sighting. In one of the pictures, motorboat propeller marks were clearly visible on the manatee’s back.

“Thanks for the report,” Clark said. “It’s a great photo and with that prop wound healing, it should be helpful to ID [this animal] in future sightings. Its early for manatees but everything seems to be early this year.”

Clark serves as the director of the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education, in the heart of Corolla just across from the Whalehead Club and she responds to strandings on the northern-most beaches.

At Jennette’s Pier, educator Rachel Potts is the point person for the handful of volunteers who have the training, truck and tools to respond to injured, sick and dying marine mammals on area beaches and sound-side waters from Duck south to Coquina where the National Parks Service takes over for Hatteras Island. Call them at 252-216-6892.

Visitors should call one of the two hotlines when they see a marine mammal stranding on the beach or shoreline. Clark, Potts and park rangers ask visitors not to push animals such as bottlenose dolphins or porpoise back into the sea or sound. These animals strand themselves when they’re not well.

As for manatees, keep your eyes peeled the next time you’re at Jennette’s — or any other ocean pier this month — because it’s one of the best times of the year to see a manatee near the pier.

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