Wildlife Officials Fear Tourists Are Loving Manatees to Death
The annual migration of Florida’s famous but endangered sea cows toward warmer water has begun.
Despite their rotund shape, manatees are blubber-free, prompting the marine mammals to search for warm refuges when ocean temperatures cool in winter.
They flock to Florida’s network of natural freshwater springs—hot spots that the endangered animals congregate around to stay alive through the winter months. The springs also attract throngs of tourists who pay to get up close and personal with the gentle giants. That has set off a fight between tour operators and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
The dispute centers on Three Sisters Spring. The roughly one-acre spring in the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s west coast stays a toasty 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. At the first sign of a cold snap, manatees swim to the spring. Last year, 440 of the animals jammed their way into the spring at once.
Today, manatees are often met at the spring by lines of snorkelers, paddle boarders, and the tour boats that brought them there, all vying to get an up-close view of the animals in their natural habitat.
That can be a stressful situation for the manatees, which can be spooked by tourists getting too close or even touching them. With hundreds of humans in the water, it’s hard for Fish and Wildlife Service officials in charge of managing the spring to make sure swimmers are keeping their distance.
A timelapse of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida, taken by Cristina Mittermeier for National Geographic in September.
“It’s the Wild West out there,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
The group, along with conservation organization Save the Manatee Club, has been at the forefront of pushing for more regulations to protect manatees. They’ve produced multiple videos showing the agitation manatees face at the hands of tourists and revealed emails from a former Crystal River Wildlife Refuge manager who wrote that the unregulated activity at the spring was likely harassing manatees.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service for years has been complicit in allowing these interactions, claiming that allowing people to get so close to them is an educational experience,” Ruch said. “But there are no other endangered animals that I know of that you can basically touch without getting in trouble.”
In an August report, wildlife officials outlined a plan to limit the number of swimmers allowed in Three Sisters to 29 at any one time. But after conducting a study of the tour guides and consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Coast Guard, they lowered the number to 13. Proposals for hiring more staff at the spring and more land-based viewing options were also included in a revised November report.
“I think it shows that the Fish and Wildlife Service has finally been forced to admit that the swimming has got out of hand,” Ruch said.
Bill Oestreich, owner of Bird’s Underwater Dive Shop in Crystal River, has watched the local manatee viewing hot spots grow more and more crowded. He and his wife, Diane, have been running boat tours to Three Sisters Springs for more than 20 years and are worried the new regulations might end up pushing all 35 permitted tour operators out of the springs.
“We might not go under, but we’ll lose the business of underwater photographers we’d take up to that spring,” Oestreich said. “And we’ll probably lose business from misinformed people who think this means the entire bay is shut down to tours.”
While the tour operations are a source of revenue for him, Oestreich also sees an opportunity for the public to better understand the endangered animals.
“People come away talking about having a religious experience, I’ve seen it,” he said. “They leave wanting to know how to get involved in helping manatees.”
But it’s that type of interaction that Ruch and fellow conservationists think the wildlife agency needs to start teaching the public isn’t in the best interest of the animals
“They are grappling with the same issues zoos deal with: This notion that these up-close interactions are good for the animal in the long term, when there isn’t a shred of evidence for that view,” Ruch said,
The new rules are under review by FWS, which is accepting public comment until Dec. 18. A final decision is expected by the end of the year.