I was walking a section of the Big Creek Greenway the other day when I spied a previously unnoticed side trail heading toward the creek. Always on the lookout for ways to access possible fishing spots, I followed the trail to see where it went.

It took me to the creek, sure enough – but what I spotted, as I eased up on the water, was not fish but rather a group of river otters!

I love to watch otters in the wild. They move as if flowing with the water itself, gliding as if totally free of gravity. It’s a treat to see them, and so I stood as still as I could and watched for quite a while. It was neat!

But it’s nothing like seeing a manatee.

There are no manatees in Big Creek, of course. They’re giant creatures of the coast, where they move slowly along in the shallows, dining on grasses and other vegetation. A manatee can be 8 feet long (or bigger!) and since they like to hang out just below the surface, they’re not hard to spot if they’re present.

I’ve seen manatees several times over the years, but I remember one manatee encounter in particular. I was fly fishing for sea trout, and I’d been working my way through the mangroves to get to some wadable water. When I finally stepped out of the mangrove tangle and into the shallow water of the bay, what should I see not ten feet to my right but an enormous manatee just soaking up the sun!

I just stood there, as quiet as I could be, and watched for a while. Eventually it stirred, seemed to stretch, and then ever so slowly moved off and disappeared into deeper water. It was an encounter I’ll never forget.

If you head down to the coast, and especially if you go out in a boat, keep an eye out for manatees this spring and summer. The massive creatures migrate from Florida into Georgia waters in the spring, drawn by the seasonal proliferation of marsh grass and other vegetation on which they feed. They’ll be here into November, when cooler weather prompts them to return to warmer waters farther south.

When manatees are present, boaters should be especially careful to watch out for them and give them plenty of room. Manatees can be hard to spot, especially near the edges of marshes and/or if the water’s a bit murky. According to the Department of Natural Resources, boat strikes are a major cause of manatee injuries and deaths. In fact, estimates are that boat collisions were the cause of about 30 percent of documented manatee mortalities since 2000.

How can you reduce the risks of hitting a manatee with your boat? First, and even before you start your motor, check your surroundings for manatees. They seem to like to hang out near docks, where they come to dine on the algae that grows on those structures.

Once you’re underway, go slowly and watch the water. Polarized glasses will help you spot manatees underwater, allowing you to avoid them. Stick to deeper channels, too, and try to avoid the shallower waters where a manatee encounter is more likely. And keep your eyes open for things like swirls on the surface – often a telltale sign that there’s a manatee nearby.

One more thing: never feed manatees or give them fresh water.

“This could teach the animals to approach docks, putting them at greater risk of a boat strike,” DNR reminds boaters. “And never pursue, harass or play with manatees. It can be harmful to manatees and it’s illegal.”

Should you do anything special if you see a manatee?

“If you see or photograph a healthy, injured or dead manatee, call DNR at (800) 2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363),” advises the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “Note the date, time, location and number of manatees seen, plus the coordinates, if possible.”

Occasionally, despite our best efforts, boat/manatee collisions do occur. Should that happen, advises DNR, you should “stand-by and immediately contact the DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363). This provides biologists the best chance to help these animals and gather data useful in conserving them. Boaters will not be charged if operating their boat responsibly and the collision was an accident.”

So keep your eyes open as you enjoy the coast this spring and summer. If you’re lucky, you just might be rewarded with one of the most memorable wildlife encounters you’ll ever have – seeing a manatee in the wild.