CRYSTAL RIVER, Florida—Stuffed in a wet suit and armed with a fluorescent-green pool noodle, I climb down the short swim ladder into 78-degree water when a manatee blocks my way.
It’s a baby, but at about three months old, the chubby gray manatee is already five feet long and apparently has me beat in the weight category. It meanders along the edge of the swim step, scarfing down some algae at the platform’s edge before it spins on its back.
“Looks like it wants a belly rub,” says a tourist behind me, and by the animal’s behavior, it sure seems like it.
The whole scene is surreal—like a well-curated program orchestrated by Disney or SeaWorld. But it isn’t. This intimate encounter with an endangered marine mammal comes in its natural habitat—a wild manatee being peculiarly tame.
FULL COVERAGE Captive: The Movement to Free Marine Mammals
“We’ve kind of trained them to tolerate us,” says Mike Milisci, the captain aboard the pontoon tour boat I’ve joined on this warm spring day in Kings Bay, a 600-acre inlet 70 miles north of Tampa. “But should they be? It’s something I wonder about.”
The bay abuts Crystal River, a small coastal town famous for its multitude of manatees. Every year, when the water temperature drops below 68 degrees along Florida’s coast, hundreds of the boulder-shaped beasts migrate en masse to warm themselves at the bay’s 70 or so freshwater springs that daily pump out a combined 800 million gallons of water at a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that more than 200,000 people take to the water annually to experience Three Sisters Springs, a manatee hot spot in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Rangers regularly respond to calls of swimmers touching, grabbing, cornering, chasing, and even attempting to ride the gentle, vulnerable giants. “It’s a nightmare,” says Ivan Vicente, a Fish and Wildlife Service ranger at the refuge, noting that as many as 1,200 snorkelers visited the springs in one 24-hour period in March.
Manatees’ reliance on easily accessible warm-water springs and the animals’ docile demeanor give people an intimate encounter with a wild marine mammal. The exploding manatee tourism industry, however, is transforming the springs into a faux-wild environment, one where the animals have been so habituated to human interaction, they’ll roll over for a belly rub. Manatees do not swim into the bays to hang out with humans, though; they’re coming to these spots to survive the winter, and humans are just tolerated nuisances most of the time. But is the experience really wild, or are we getting too close for their—and our—comfort?
The backlash over SeaWorld’s controversial handling of its captive killer whales is raising new questions about what constitutes wildlife education and what is exploitation of manatees, dolphins, and other animals. Activists are challenging whether swim-with-the-dolphins programs at scores of marine parks around the world encourage participants to become conservation-minded guardians of wildlife and whether any such benefits outweigh the physical and mental stresses the animals endure from constant contact with humans. Manatees and dolphins may be wild, but they’re not free, animal rights activists argue, and people are profiting from tourism that can harm the marine mammals’ habitat. As SeaWorld tries to quell its critics by ending captive breeding of orcas, a new fight over captivity is beginning. The plight of the manatees and dolphins, activists say, echoes the hardships long endured by captive killer whales.
In Hot Water
Unlike blubbery sea lions, walruses, or whales, herbivorous manatees are nearly fat-free, their gigantic frames filled mostly by a gastrointestinal tract required to digest the 150 pounds of sea grass they consume daily. Evolving in a tropical environment has left the West Indian manatee (of which the Florida and Belize manatee are considered subspecies) unable to withstand cold ocean temperatures.
In Crystal River, it has found a haven. When manatees were first listed as endangered in 1967 by the federal government, the Florida population was estimated in the hundreds, with about 40 spending winters in the Crystal River region. Today, the population has recovered to more than 6,000 statewide. As many as 550 manatees winter in the 177-acre Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, an area the Fish and Wildlife Service set aside in 1983 to protect the marine mammals.
Back on our tour, Milisci is puttering around the bay a few hundred yards from the dock at Bird’s Underwater Dive Shop, a tour company that’s been running manatee snorkeling trips in Crystal River since 1989.
Donning a worn Red Sox hat, polarized sunglasses, and an oversize white T-shirt (complete with a screen print of a manatee), Milisci points out “potatoes”—surfacing manatees—to the 10 snorkelers bobbing around the boat. It’s the off-season, the water is warm, and manatees are scattered about the shallows of Florida’s coast. But our group still encounters 10 or 12 of the animals on our three-hour tour, including a few mother-calf pairs milling around, vacuuming up sea grass amid the hodgepodge of dredged human-made canals, boat docks, seawalls, springs, and natural mangroves that encompass the bay.
“This is the time of year I like best,” says Milisci, who has been running tours for Bird’s the past three years. “This is when you see the happy manatees—they’re not stuck up on the springs, stressed out, half starved and half freezing, just trying to survive.”
He’s talking about the winter months between November and March. That’s when temperatures drop, and a handful of Crystal River’s springs turn into manatee gathering grounds, where hundreds of the 1,000-pound mammals huddle in the naturally heated water for survival. It’s also when crowds of humans converge on Three Sisters Springs.
Three Sisters is the most natural looking of the springs in Crystal River. It is surrounded by trees and native shrubs, with only a narrow channel leading from the bay into the cerulean blue waters warmed by 19 small underwater vents scattered across three clover-shaped “lobes”—Pretty Sister, Deep Sister, and Little Sister.
The spring and adjacent 40 acres of land were saved from development in 2010, when environmentalists joined city, state, and federal officials to purchase the property for $10.8 million and turn it into a manatee-tourist conservation haven. A boardwalk allows visitors who pay a $15 admission fee to walk around the springs and view manatees without entering the water. Boulders that partially blocked the passageway into the springs were removed, allowing easier access for manatees—and humans.
That has led more manatees to rely on Three Sisters in the winter months. As a result, the number of paddleboarders, kayakers, snorkelers, and other onlookers at the spring has tripled in the past decade.
Diane Oestreich, co-owner of Bird’s with her husband, Bill Oestreich, says the changes over the last 20 years have been dramatic.
“We started as a dive shop, running cave dive tours, and were doing the manatee thing on the side, but that’s totally changed,” she says. “Manatees are the main revenue source, the main attraction now.”
Oestreich says the number of tour operators has ballooned from a handful in the early 1990s to more than 40 today, each running several boats and multiple manatee tours every day in the busy season.
Milisci came to Crystal River after 15 years of captaining dolphin tours on Massachusetts Bay. “It’s funny, because my first year running tours here, I was stoked to be this close to a marine mammal and be in the water with them,” says the Salem, Massachusetts, native, noting that swimming with wild dolphins is illegal.
But when it comes to Three Sisters, Milisci thinks it might be best for humans to keep their distance. “You go there, and it’s just not fair to the manatees,” he says. “They really like that spot, and to see them getting crowded out—it’s no good.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service has roped off seven locations within the Crystal River refuge, designating 40 acres as manatee sanctuaries and barring all human activity there during the winter season.
But at Three Sisters, officials have tried just about everything to continue allowing people to swim with the manatees while working to keep the animals out of harm’s way. Consider the “manatee manners” video. Every tour operator is required to show the Fish and Wildlife Service–produced video to customers before venturing out on tours of the springs. The video depicts the dos and don’ts in the refuge, emphasizing the need to observe the animals from a distance to avoid altering their behavior.
The agency must also show that its approved swim-with-the-manatees programs don’t violate the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act—which prohibits the harassment of wild marine mammals—or infringe on the protections granted to the animal under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. That’s a challenge, to say the least.
“Some visitors are trying to get a great-quality experience, and the sheer number of people is affecting their experience,” says Vicente, who has been working in Crystal River and with manatees for the past 10 years. “Instead of seeing a manatee, you’re just seeing fins.”
In 2013, Fish and Wildlife Service officials began shutting down entire springs to human access during extreme cold spells to allow manatees to rest undisturbed.
Two years ago, the agency began working on a compromise: Keep the swimming, but limit the number of swimmers allowed in Three Sisters. It conducted tests with tour companies to see how manatees reacted. In August 2015, they ran the first test with 29 individuals and after consulting with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Coast Guard, decided that 13 swimmers at a time might be more appropriate.
“We are trying to show that there is a way that people can enter the water without disturbing the manatees, and get away entirely from the legal issues associated with the Endangered Species Act, manatee disturbances, and so on,” Vicente says.
Why go through the hassle of trying to keep the springs open to swimming when the simple solution is to close it off—especially when the agency has set precedent by shutting down similar nearby manatee hot spots?
Money, for one thing. Three Sisters has become the most popular attraction in Crystal River—a community that relies on manatee-centric tourism, which helps generate $20 million to $30 million a year. Take away the swimming portion of the manatee experience, and you might cut into the profits of tour operators, trinket shops, restaurants, and hotels.
Another driver appears to be politics. A lot of the funding that went into saving Three Sisters came from residents and tour operators who weren’t just saving the site from development—they wanted to maintain their access to it.
“I gave a $1,000 donation to keep that site open,” Oestreich says. “We wanted it open for our tour guests to enjoy, and so us as residents can enjoy it, and our grandchildren can someday enjoy it. Now the Fish and Wildlife Service comes in and says they want to rope the whole thing off? That’s not fair.”
Finally, there’s the long-running debate over the benefits up close and intimate wildlife encounters can have in educating the public and raising awareness about the animals’ plight.
“We have a generation here that’s going to be our future politicians, developers, lawmakers, government officials,” Vicente says. “They are gaining an understanding of what manatees need to survive, what a charismatic species they are, and what an amazing encounter it is to be in their world, submerged. These kids are leaving this place touched and changed forever. They’re the future boaters of Florida too. They’re going to be a lot more cautious with their vessel to avoid a manatee impact.”
It’s an old pitch, says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal biologist and a veteran anti-captivity activist, by people profiting from captivity. “You see that same talk coming out zoos, aquariums, and these dolphinariums, and a lot of these places only started pitching that conservation or awareness message after the ‘Save the Whales’ movement of the ’70s,” she says. “Before that a lot of these places were basically operating as circuses in a lot of ways. People wanted to see tricks.”
The Dolphin Industiral Complex
One hundred thirty miles from Crystal River, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, is Marineland—home of the original dolphin show. The park opened in 1938 as Marine Studios, an underwater stage set—complete with live animals—for Hollywood movies. The owners built a deep pool on the coast and lined it with large windows to give cameras easy access for filming. In the early days, the company had a designated boat fleet that it sent out to capture wild dolphins, sharks, fish, corals, and other animals for its collection.
Marineland in the 1960s
“It was really the first oceanarium,” says Terran McGinnis, an archivist at Marineland since 2000. Once the tank was completed and the public found out they could visit, the business model of Marineland Studios became Marineland Theme Park.
By the 1950s, Marineland featured the “Amazing Jumping Dolphins” show and Flippy, the first trained dolphin. Marineland eventually stopped capturing wild animals, developed a captive breeding program, and tweaked its efforts to more conservation-minded efforts. The sea turtles on display were rescued and rehabilitated but were unable to be returned to the wild because of the nature of their injuries.
The home of the original dolphin show no longer puts on dolphin shows. Marineland’s 14 bottlenose dolphins are used in “interactive” programs, in which customers can pay upwards of $200 to swim with, touch, and learn about the animals.
It’s big business. In Florida alone, 12 marine parks advertise opportunities to swim or otherwise interact with dolphins. In the Caribbean, more than 30 facilities cater to the cruise tourist industry, and worldwide, hundreds of dolphinariums tout the chance to get up close and personal with a “smiling” dolphin.
Standing in the viewing area along Marineland’s 50-foot-long main tank, I watch a family participate in a dolphin encounter program. Two teenage girls and their mother wade in waist-high water, and a trainer motions for one of the guests to shake hands with a dolphin. The animal extends a pectoral fin, and the guest grabs hold. All three take turns holding the dolphin’s flippers, petting them, and getting “kisses” on the cheek. After every command, the dolphin swims away from the group to the opposite end of the pool. There, another trainer sits on the edge with a bucket of dead fish. She tosses the obedient dolphin a snack. It’s the type of experience proponents claim results in appreciation for dolphins and raises awareness of the importance of preserving the animals in the wild.
It goes on like this for about 20 minutes: Trick, swim, snack; trick, swim, snack. The dolphin’s face remains etched with the same curved smile, giving the illusion that the animals are permanently enjoying themselves, no matter how mundane the task, no matter how the dolphins are actually responding.
McGinnis, brown-haired and wearing a crisp white short-sleeved “Marineland”-embroidered button-down shirt, believes the park’s early days were integral in ushering in a sea change on how humans look at dolphins. “Before us, no one really knew much about dolphins aside from fishermen, and they basically hunted them for food or fought with them over food,” she says. “The boys and girls who were coming here as five-, six-year-olds; they’re the ones that grew up to be the adults that pushed for the protections now in the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”
Rose, however, sees early parks like Marineland as the stepping-stones for the SeaWorlds and swim-with-the-dolphins programs that have spread worldwide and resulted in hundreds of orcas and dolphins being subjected to a life in captivity. According to a 2009 Humane Society report Rose coauthored, that life often is a bleak one, lived in small enclosures and on a diet of nutrient-deficient frozen fish and a steady dose of antibiotics and ulcer medications.
Is there a conservation benefit to seeing animals perform or experiencing them up close, whether captive dolphins or wild manatees?
“It’s a bag of mixed messages,” Rose says about swim-with-the-dolphins programs. “You’re basically saying that people need to be up close and personal with these animals to learn to love them, but that’s conditioning people to play with wildlife like this and end up doing it in the wild.”
Flourishing or Floundering?
For Thomas White, a professor of business ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, the debate about keeping marine mammals in captivity is a moral one. “The life of captive dolphins and whale is a deprived life—they cannot flourish,” he says.
White sees a connection between some of the issues manatees are facing in the wild and the hardships killer whales and dolphins have faced in captivity. “You have this social animal that needs to use these warm-water areas, but they have to deal with boat traffic that kills them and an onslaught of people watching them, touching them, feeding them, and conditioning them to tolerate us,” White says. “We might be loving them to death.”
On my spring trip to Crystal River, I meet Michelle Dunnelon, 45, a customer of Bird’s Underwater manatee tours since 2000. This time, she has brought along her mother, Anita Dunnelon, and her 21-year-old son, Taylor Scott. In between manatee sightings, the subject of SeaWorld crops up, and even among family members, there is a rift in the conversation about the role marine mammals should play as performers versus educational tools.
Michelle Dunnelon loves the theme park. She sees SeaWorld as a place for people who might not have access to the ocean to see, experience, and learn about marine life. But ever since seeing Blackfish, the 2013 documentary about SeaWorld, Scott doesn’t think that’s reason enough to keep large marine mammals like dolphins and orcas in captivity.
“They just don’t have enough room to live,” Scott says. “They’re huge animals, and they’re in these tiny tanks.”
Still, the family agrees that the experience they get swimming with wild manatees in their natural environment far exceeds any performance or choreographed experience SeaWorld offers. They also acknowledge that there can be a downside to interacting with wild animals.
“We’ve been out there and have seen how some other tour operators just let their people do whatever they want, and they’re basically all over the manatees,” Dunnelon says.
Crystal River resident and marine biologist Matt Clemons has witnessed the effect of this “loving” firsthand. Clemons spent 15 years at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection researching the mass mortality events that plagued manatee herds in the 1990s.
In 2001, Clemons joined the board at Save the Manatee Club, one of the region’s most powerful conservation groups. Over the years, the nonprofit has fought—sometimes in court—to get local, state, and federal agencies to establish protections for manatees, including slow speed zones in places like Kings Bay, where recreational boaters and manatees both congregate in high numbers.
Boats were an obvious target, as slow-moving, oft-surfacing manatees are frequently victims of boat strikes, accounting for around 25 percent of total manatee mortalities each year. The strikes are so frequent, scientists actually identify manatees in the wild by their propeller scars—white gashes that sometimes look like tire-tread marks carved deep into their skin.
The group has also fought coastal development near critical manatee habitat and worked to restore the sea grass fields the herbivores need to maintain their daily intake of nearly 10 percent of their body weight.
Today, Clemons runs ethical eco-tours out of his kayak shop in Crystal River, preaching a “look-but-don’t-touch” approach on his manatee excursions. He limits groups to six kayakers or fewer—any group much larger than that, and you can’t call it an eco-tour, Clemons says.
“You get these groups out here, sometimes a hundred people on multiple boats all going up to Three Sisters Springs, and they’re touching the manatees, surrounding them and the manatees having to put up with it,” Clemons says.
He believes the Fish and Wildlife Service should make Three Sisters a people-free manatee sanctuary, and the agency should not let swimmers touch manatees if the animals approach them.
“Manatees are curious by nature, so they want to check you out, inspect you,” Clemons says. “But when we are engaging them, turning them over, giving them a belly scratch, we’re reinforcing their behavior—which is changing how they interact. You’re getting manatees coming up to you, instead of avoiding you, and in my mind, that’s not a good thing.”
That can lead to manatees being conditioned to approach boats instead of avoiding them—which could lead in turn to more manatee deaths.
Vicente, the ranger, believes warm-water refuges like Crystal River need to be as accessible and habitable for manatees as possible. The success of recent conservation efforts has resulted in a record of more than 6,000 manatees recorded in the state’s latest survey.
“We’re getting record numbers of manatees in Crystal River, trying to stay warm, and right now, they don’t get a break from the tours coming every hour to watch them,” Vicente says. “There are parts of Florida where a manatee will leave the second it sees a person, but the manatees here are forced to be here, because they are trying to stay warm. So they just look at you and keep on munching. We are part of the equation now.”
Sustainable Manatee Tourism
Vicente says the agency is mulling whether to shut down human access to Three Sisters when the manatees need it most—from November through March. For now, Fish and Wildlife Service officials plan to keep the spring open to the public, continue the environmental assessment, and see if there is a way to retain some portion of a swimming program without affecting manatees.
Looking out an office window at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, Vicente points out dolphins jumping in the distance. He’s hopeful Crystal River can become a model for sustainable tourism.
“It can be, but it’s not yet,” Vicente said. “And the problem is decades in the making: When people hear Crystal River, they think, ‘Oh, that’s where I get to touch a manatee,’ instead of ‘Oh, that’s where I get to observe and encounter a manatee.’ Contact is something we’ve conditioned manatees to, and over time, we can condition against that behavior, toward wild ways, by avoiding that contact. To make this model truly sustainable, we have to have the wild aspect of manatee existence.”