KIAWAH ISLAND -- The kayakers on the tour hoped they'd see sea turtles, or maybe dolphins feeding. They didn't expect to see big plumes of sand popping to the surface, coming closer and closer to the beach on Capt. Sam's Inlet.
"Right when it got to us, the big head came up. It kind of rolled, its head came up and then the tail," said Kiawah Island Resort naturalist Tim Pifer. And it took a breath -- a manatee -- the ponderous, seemingly misshapen creature that inspired the myth of mermaids.
The manatee is one of the not-so-often-spotted wonders of the coast. The only time Pifer had ever seen one before, the mammal was 100 yards off in the water. This one was close enough that the group of teens on the trip could almost reach out and touch it. He led the teens jogging down the beach to follow as the manatee swam along earlier this week.
"You could see the whiskers on its face," Pifer said. "They were screaming. They loved it."
The clouds of sand, it turned out, had been kicked up by the manatee's tail as it moved through the shallows.
Manatees are on the move again from their wintering Florida waters. Summer after summer, 50 or more sightings are made in Lowcountry estuaries, nearly half of them around Charleston, although that might represent as few as a dozen of the animals, said Chuck Underwood of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The manatee is considered a threatened species. Wildlife officials urge boaters to watch out for manatees and other endangered and threatened species such as sea turtles. Cut back the throttle and keep propellers away.
Manatees tend to turn up near docks, particularly where a freshwater spigot runs. But they roam estuaries and tidal rivers like dolphins, hunting food. They have been seen as far upstream as the Tailrace Canal in Moncks Corner. They tend to poke along, surfacing to breath. But they can move fast enough to have humans jogging to keep up.
The half-ton, 14-foot-long creature looks like a bulbous seal with a puppy-dog face. It was once thought near extinction, but now seems to be recovering despite threats to it.
Boat propellers and boat strikes are considered a leading threat to manatees. It's also among the species that wildlife officials worry is in danger because of the Gulf oil spill.
"It was a surprise how large it was. At first I'm thinking, what is that?" said Tess Smith, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints young women's group, who were on the kayak trip. "I've been kayaking twice now, and I've seen a manatee. Maybe I should go kayaking more often."