Scenic Three Sisters Springs: it’s the center of Florida’s manatee universe where as many as 500 of the huge, gentle mammals come and go in a single day as the waters of the nearby Gulf of Mexico grow too cold for them to travel and forage.
Despite the watchful eyes of a half-dozen monitors from the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in kayaks and on shore, supplemented by underwater video surveillance cameras, there’s an awful lot of touching, kissing and fondling going on right on the surface of the clear springs. But not by the 30 or so human snorkelers who have come to visit.
“He kissed me!” squealed a female diver to her companions.
Added another: “One had me with its flippers. I couldn’t get away. I couldn’t shoot a photo because it was too close!”
But neither was complaining. Just a typical, joyful winter day at the only confined water body in the world where the general public is allowed to swim with an endangered species.
“Fantastic, almost like being in a different world,” said snorkeler Paul Stamatakis of Fort Lauderdale. “It is phenomenal. You can’t come out of an experience like this without being awestruck.”
Stamatakis, his wife Marsha and their fellow visitors were lucky that day. They didn’t get shut out of the 1 1/2-acre spring as hundreds of others have when refuge officials closed Three Sisters numerous times since December. When too many manatees congregate in the warm-water refuge, people are kept out. The situation changes daily, so the refuge has set up a Facebook page with real-time updates. Visitors can still observe manatees that gather around the 70 other springs scattered around adjacent Kings Bay, but those waters are green and murky — not optimum for viewing and photography.
Manatee conservation is at a crossroads, and the town of Crystal River — located about a 1 1/2-hour drive north of Tampa — is center stage for how the situation will play out.
Last summer, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced it would undertake a year-long review of the manatee’s status to see if it should be reclassified from endangered to threatened. The review was prompted by a petition filed in 2012 by the boating group “Save Crystal River” and the Pacific Legal Foundation arguing that the population is recovering. When the species was listed in 1967, only a few hundred of the creatures swam around Florida’s coastal and inland waters. Today, the population is estimated at over 4,800. Manatee deaths spiked to a record 829 in 2013, blamed mostly on red tide in the Gulf and a toxic algae bloom in east-central Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. But mortality dropped dramatically to 371 last year.
If manatees are down-listed, not much would change for the hundreds who visit the Crystal River area each year, according to Ivan Vicente, a veteran visitors’ services specialist at the federal refuge.
“The only thing that’s taken away is their status,” Vicente said, adding that other protections such as boating slow-speed zones and laws against chasing or harassing manatees would remain in place.
But all the buzz about the potential reclassification in the media and among manatee researchers and enthusiasts, he said, has resulted in more visitors flocking to the region.
More than 265,000 people snorkeled, paddled or viewed manatees from private, guided and rental boats in the Crystal River refuge last year, according to the USFWS. The huge congregation of visitors and manatees prompted the agency to propose new rules for Three Sisters: kayaks and canoes would be blocked from two-thirds of the spring and only admitted to the remainder of the area between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and flash photography would be prohibited except by special permit. Those measures are still awaiting approval.
Stephanie Whiston, a financier, scuba diver, photographer and conservationist from Montauk, New York, snorkeled with manatees for the first time in January. She said she wouldn’t mind at all if the number of in-water visitors was restricted.
“This is the first time I’ve ever encountered a manatee after 23 years underwater,” Whiston said. “Amazing! I loved it. I want to be a manatee conservationist.”
Captain Jeff Mauldin, who operates a snorkel tour boat at the Plantation on Crystal River resort, said interacting with manatees never gets old.
“Until recently, I never had one give me a kiss,” he said. “When you’re in the water with an endangered wild animal and it comes up to you like that, it’s just cool.”