One of the dolphins in the pod in Lighthouse Creek just looked funny, like it had a cut-off nose. Then it flipped a graceful mermaid's tail.
Tour boat operator Anton DuMars couldn't believe it at first: a manatee, in early May, on a trip where he hadn't even been able to find a fiddler crab for a customer's child to see. The dolphin disappeared, but the 6-foot-long sea cow lolled long enough for the boat to drift closer to the bulbous, walrus-like sea mammal with its bulldog snout.
"I usually see them in the (Charleston) Harbor, in the heat of the summer," said DuMars, of Tideline Tours.
The sea creatures are back — manatees and turtles that are part of the lore and lure of Lowcountry summers. They're out there among the beachgoers and boaters. Wildlife officials again urge: Watch out for the endangered and threatened species. Leave the nests alone. Cut back the throttle and keep propellers away.
"We've had a number of sea turtles injured by propellers already this year," said Tom Murphy, S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.
The South Carolina Aquarium has had six stranded sea turtles admitted to its rehabilitation hospital so far this year, after seeing only two by this time last year. Only one has survived. Two were boat strikes. Already this year, 28 sea turtles have been reported stranded along the South Carolina coast, including two loggerheads and a Kemps ridley turtle on Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms on Sunday.
"Two of them were terrible boat strikes, big slices," said Bev Ballow, of the Isle of Palms turtle watch team. "So far it really is a bad year. This is getting off to a bad start."
Meanwhile, sea turtle nests are starting to show up in the dunes. More than 30 loggerheads have dug nests in the Cape Romain National Seashore, the heart of their nesting in South Carolina. There's a nest on Sullivan's Island. A nest of the huge, very rarely seen leatherback has been reported on Pritchards Island near Hilton Head Island. A few thousand nests will be dug each year.
The loggerhead is a long-lived giant that crawls ashore in the spring and summer to lay eggs in nests. The leatherback is bigger, with a breakfast table-sized shell and flippers that look like huge falcon wings. Then there's dinner plate-sized Kemps ridley and the green turtle.
Despite a decline in the number of nests across the Southeast, boaters say they see more and more turtles in waters off South Carolina. On a good day, a Department of Natural Resources aerial survey will count 100 or so larger turtles.
"The turtles are out there. They're trickling in," said DuBose Griffin, Natural Resources sea turtle coordinator.
Manatees, too, are on the move from their wintering Florida waters, the seemingly misshapen creatures that inspired the myth of mermaids. Each year, 100 or so summer in Lowcountry estuaries, nearly half of them around Charleston.
"One was spotted in (Charleston) harbor in April," biologist Murphy said. "We get a few in late April and early May. By mid-May they start showing up in numbers."