Sometimes the magic is right in front of you. Or, in this case, right below the surface.
Last summer I took a visiting relative to Crystal River to kayak in Kings Bay. She’d never seen a manatee in person, but because the weather was still warm, I wasn’t promising an encounter.
We paddled about the bay and then down a narrower tributary leading to some of the area’s natural springs. It was near one of the springs that not one but two manatees blessed us with a surprise sighting. She was enthralled, and I was delighted to have given her the opportunity to see these amazing mammals up close in their natural environment.
That sighting was all the more special because it took place in August when most manatees are out in open waters. Now that those waters have cooled down, many endangered Florida Manatees (a subspecies of the West Indian manatee), have made their way to Kings Bay, headwaters of the Crystal River, for their vital winter refuge in warmer sanctuaries. A minimum manatee population count conducted on February 23, 2015 put their numbers at 6,063.
Aquatic Winter Residents
Manatees are an endangered species, protected under the federal Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. Fortunately for us here in Central Florida, “endangered” doesn’t mean “rarely seen.”
The Crystal River area is home to the world’s largest winter population of manatees, with numbers in the hundreds. Three Sisters Springs has the distinction of having the greatest number of manatees ever recorded in one day in any natural body of water in the world, as 534 manatees were counted there on December 27, 2014.
Despite their rather portly appearance, manatees have very little body fat, which makes them extremely temperature sensitive. In fact, they cannot tolerate water temperatures below 68°F. Come winter, they head for warm water sources, including natural springs and power plant water discharge areas. This explains the abundance of manatees in the Crystal River area between November and March. Many manatees have been known to return to the same areas each winter.
Thanks to documentaries that aired on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic channel in recent years, tourism numbers in Crystal River have skyrocketed. That means more people than ever are getting in the water… not necessarily a good thing for the manatees.
Although some manatees—like the ones I was fortunate to see in August—are in Kings Bay year-round, the greatest numbers are seen between November 15 and March 31, which is considered “high season.” Citrus County is expecting a 15 percent increase in tourism this coming season, which means about 165,000 people will visit the area.
“It’s important that we understand these creatures that live so close to us. Unlike many other marine animals, manatees are right in our backyard. There’s no other marine mammal or endangered species that people are encouraged to get right up close to,” says Dr. Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation for the Save the Manatee Club in Maitland, whose mission is to “protect endangered manatees and their aquatic habitat for future generations.”
An award-winning non-profit conservation organization, Save the Manatee Club was created in 1981 by singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett and former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham to raise awareness about the numerous threats to manatees and their habitat.
“There’s this idea that people won’t support manatees if they can’t swim with them, but I don’t buy that argument. Tourist numbers are through the roof, but we’re not seeing a wave of financial support for manatees or tour companies donating a portion of their proceeds to help with conservation efforts,” Dr. Tripp notes.
She and other manatee enthusiasts are hopeful that many tourists coming to see the manatees will do so without feeling the need to get wet. Thanks to the recently opened boardwalk at Three Sister Springs, this is becoming a popular option. Of the 30 known springs in all of Kings Bay, this is the most important to manatees. It was acquired in 2010 and only recently opened to the public for manatee viewing.
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge covers more than 200 acres and was established in 1983. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it is the only refuge created specifically to offer protection to the endangered Florida Manatee. Approximately 700 manatees migrate to Kings Bay and winter over each year.
“The Three Sisters Boardwalk opened to the public for the first time in November 2014 and was open until April of this year,” says Ivan Vicente, visitor services specialist at Crystal River Wildlife Refuge. “The plan is to keep the boardwalk open year-round, beginning this November.”
Nearly 20,000 people have enjoyed the Three Sisters Boardwalk since it opened, and the refuge expects tourist numbers to climb. Guests park at a designated spot in Crystal River and pay a nominal fee to take a short shuttle bus ride to the entrance to the Three Sisters Boardwalk inside the refuge.
“The boardwalk goes around the perimeter of the springs, which is shaped like a three-leaf clover. It’s easily accessible and gives visitors an elevated viewpoint where they can be above dozens of resting manatees,” says Vicente. “The water offers perfect visibility, so it’s an opportunity to take great photos and make memories. Depending on the tide, the boardwalk is anywhere from 3 to 8 feet above the water, which is crystal clear so you have excellent viewing of the manatees, as well as fish and turtles.
“Three Sisters is the most remarkable of the many springs in Kings Bay,” Vicente adds. “Pick a cold day to come because the colder it is, the more manatees there will be in the spring.”
Blue Spring State Park in Volusia County includes the largest spring on the St. John’s River and is also a designated manatee refuge with great viewing opportunities. The park, which covers more than 2,600 acres, reports that 481 individual manatees came into the refuge during the 2014-2015 season (November to April). Swimming with manatees is not allowed at Blue Spring, but the manatees are easily viewed from atop the spring’s overlooks.
Getting In The Water
If you absolutely want to get in the water, conservationists urge you to go out with a responsible company that follows guidelines put in place to respect and protect the manatees.
Manatees in Paradise is one tour operator that gets high marks from Dr. Tripp. Owned and operated by husband-wife team Mike and Stacy Dunn, Manatees in Paradise has been in business since 2008 and has received “Manatee Hero” awards in recognition of their “outstanding concern and commitment to manatee protection.”
Mike and Stacy take out small groups of no more than six people at a time in their pontoon boat, allowing people to observe the manatees from the boat or in the water. Passive observation and educating guests about the manatees are their top priorities.
“My wife and I do manatee recovery, research and rescue. This is one way we give back to the manatees,” notes Mike Dunn. “We got into manatee preservation after we were out fishing on July 4, 2007. We saw a manatee that was seriously injured from a boat propeller. She had a calf with her. We called for help and stayed with her until Fish and Wildlife came to the rescue. That manatee lived about eight more hours after we found her; she didn’t make it, but her baby did. After that incident, we started learning more about manatees, and we’ve even helped rescue an orphan.”
Although some people say no one should be allowed to swim with manatees, Mike and Stacy don’t take that line. But they do feel strongly that tour operators should be responsible and put manatees first. Unfortunately, not all tour companies do this, but as a discerning visitor, you can avoid giving your money to such businesses.
“When you call a company for information about tours, ask the tour operator, ‘Do you allow us to touch or rub manatees?’ If they say ‘yes,’ you don’t want to go with them,” says Dunn.
“If you want to go out, do your homework first. You want to make sure your money’s going to a good company. Look at the company’s website. If they’re showing pictures of people with their hands on manatees, that’s not good for the manatees. If they tell you that you can rub a manatee under their flippers and they like it, cross that company off your list,” advises Dr. Tripp. “A smaller company that takes fewer people out will probably help you learn more. Look to see if they have conservation information on their website, and go to tripadvisor.com to see what other people have said about the company. If you really care about manatees, you need to go with a tour operator that is doing the right thing.”
“Tourism is bigger today than ever; it’s growing dramatically and increasing each year,” says Dunn. “Many people come with a ‘petting zoo’ mentality and forget the manatees are just here to survive. It’s not our right to get in the water with them, it’s a privilege.
“There are companies out there doing it right,” he adds. “They know what a sick manatee looks like, and they’ll take photos so it can be identified, get its location, call Fish and Wildlife and have someone stay with the manatee until the rescue boat gets there.
“We began a strict no-touch program on our tours three seasons ago,” Dunn points out. (This makes sense, as their company slogan is, “Keeping Wildlife Wild.”) “If a manatee comes up and wants to touch you, that’s allowed, but you cannot touch them back. You just stay still and let the manatee do what it wants to do. If you have the opportunity to have a manatee touch you, you’ll remember it for a lifetime. They’re curious animals, and sometimes you will get rewarded by them coming up and touching you.
“The most rewarding thing for us is that we know we’re doing it right and we’re also educating people,” Dunn adds. “If this is done right, people’s grandkids can be swimming with the manatees. If it’s done wrong, this opportunity could be gone tomorrow for all of us.”
“Remember, you’re in charge of your behavior. Don’t hang in the water right outside the sanctuary boundary. Practice passive observation, meaning float on the surface and watch the manatees. Don’t dive down to them or stand in the water. Understand that it’s a privilege to see them in their environment, so be a courteous, responsible guest in their home,” says Dr. Tripp.
“When manatees are surrounded by people they get habituated to people, but they don’t stay in Crystal River all year. They have to go out into the rest of the world,” cautions Dr. Tripp. “We don’t want to change their perceptions of humans in a way that might harm them down the road. We don’t want them approaching docks or people. Manatees are wild animals, and we want them to stay that way. We don’t want to take advantage of them just because they have a gentle demeanor. Just because they don’t have sharp teeth and claws doesn’t mean we should treat them with less regard than any other wild animals.”
Some may counter with the argument that if the manatees are being bothered by people, they’ll just leave the area.
“If they leave, they die,” says Dr. Tripp. “If a manatee gets flustered enough with people that it leaves the spring, it can be a life-or-death decision. The manatees are in these areas for survival, and they need to conserve their energy. People often think if they’re not leaving people it’s because they’re accepting, but they’re really just trying to find a way to rest.”
Much Ado About Manatees
However you decide to view the manatees, you’ll have a greater appreciation for the experience if you know more about these intriguing mammals.
Florida manatees can live in fresh, brackish or salt water and are found in shallow rivers, bays, estuaries and coastal water ecosystems of the southeastern United States. They prefer shallow waters, anywhere from 3 to 16 feet. During the summer months, they migrate as far west as Texas and as far north as Virginia, but most concentrate in Florida for the winter.
Averaging 10 feet long and about 1,000 pounds, these gentle, slow-moving vegetarians eat roughly 10 percent of their body weight in vegetation each day. Digesting that food is one of the important ways they stay warm, so it’s crucial not to disturb foraging manatees.
There’s nothing speedy about a manatee. For short bursts, they can accelerate to 20 miles per hour but usually swim at a leisurely three to five miles per hour. They must surface to breathe, which is what puts them in harm’s way of passing motorboats.
Manatees don’t become sexually mature until about the age of 5 and have a low reproductive rate. On average, a female has only one calf every two to five years. Unlike many other animal species, manatees don’t form permanent pair bonds. When in heat (which lasts for up to three weeks), females (cows) are pursued by groups of males (bulls) numbering as many as a dozen or more. Things can get a bit crazy in these “mating herds,” as more than one bull can successfully mate with the cow.
Gestation period lasts for about a year, and calves can be born any time of the year but more often in the spring and summer. Manatee calves nurse for as long as two years, although they begin to eat water plants within a few weeks after birth.
In the wild, manatees don’t usually live past their 30s, if that, because of human-related threats. But protected manatees can live 50 to 60-plus years. Snooty, a manatee in captivity at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, is now in his late 60s.
Don’t approach a manatee; leave it up to the animal to decide whether or not to swim up to you.
Don’t disturb resting manatees or dive down below the water’s surface.
Don’t splash or make excessive noise.
Don’t surround, swim after a manatee, ride, hang onto a manatee, poke or touch them.
Don’t do anything that might separate a mother and her calf.
Don’t entice them with food or water.
Don’t enter restricted manatee zones for any reason.
Be a good Samaritan.If you see someone harassing a manatee or if you spot an injured or dead manatee, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at (888) 404-3922. You can also call #FWC or *FWC from your cell phone or use VHF Channel 16 on a marine radio. You can make a report by email at email@example.com.
Want More Info?
Blue Spring State Park
Crystal River Wildlife Refuge
fws.gov/crystalriver (352) 563-2088
Manatees in Paradise
Save the Manatee Club
(407) 539-0990, (800) 432-5646
Adopt A Manatee
For a $25 annual fee, you can “adopt” a manatee. You’ll get an adoption certificate, photo, biography and membership handbook. Check out the manatees up for adoption at savethemanatee.org/adoptees.