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Visit the Manatee Capital of the World
[Crystal River, FL–] Mist rises from the murky green surface of Kings Bay as our group of snorkelers quietly enters the water. The air temperature this January morning is a chilly 40 degrees, but the waters of Kings Bay–fed by some 70 springs both large and small–are a relatively balmy 72.
We have joined the crew of the dive boat from Plantation on Crystal River to observe Kings Bay’s seasonal visitors– hundreds of endangered manatees weighing up to 2,000 pounds that gather in this warm-water refuge each winter when the adjacent Gulf of Mexico grows too cold. And we humans are not disappointed.
Floating quietly, wearing a thick wetsuit, mask and snorkel but no fins to stir up the bottom, I can see only about a foot in front of me. But very soon, a gray/brown whiskered mug with tiny eyes appears inches from my face. Rather than recoil, I just stay still as a young manatee caresses my mask with its lips. I suppress a giggle because I don’t want to scare it away. It hovers there for a few seconds, then swims slowly away using its large paddle-tail for propulsion.
No doubt this scene (or one like it) played out numerous times that morning for scores of other swimmers visiting the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge– the only water body in the world where the public is allowed to interact with an endangered species. For many, it is a life changing experience to share personal space with such a huge, engaging and gentle creature. Fortunately for us, the animals seemed happy to host us.
The manatee– perhaps Florida’s most charismatic mammal, listed as endangered since 1967–may not hold that status much longer.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently announced it is considering down-listing the manatee to “threatened” because its numbers are way up; mortality is stable; and it is no longer in danger of extinction. The public has until early April to comment on the proposal, but federal officials insist the reclassification will not result in weakened protection for the more than 6,300 manatees that inhabit the waters of the southeastern U.S.
Indeed, safeguards for the beloved sea cow are likely to be stepped up here in the Crystal River Refuge perhaps as early as this month.
One of the manatees’ favorite hangouts within the refuge is a small, breathtakingly-beautiful, clear spring adjacent to Kings Bay called Three Sisters. This 1 1/2-acre haven has been under increasing restrictions since the winter of 2011 when refuge officials began closing it to human visitors on days when manatees crowded in. On days when the spring is open, it is monitored by volunteers in kayaks and on land to prevent swimmers from molesting manatees, which carries stiff fines. Daily openings and closings are posted on the refuge’s Facebook page.
But soon, there may be no more public access to Three Sisters through the spring run. Instead, only eight snorkelers at a time –accompanied by a permitted guide– would be allowed to enter the spring from a boardwalk in the city-owned park that surrounds it.
Other long-held regulations in the refuge, such as slow-speed/no wake zones for boats and prohibitions against chasing or harassing manatees will remain intact. Snorkelers will still be able to visit the animals in much of Kings Bay.
The potential reclassification “doesn’t affect the way we do our job to protect manatees,” said Ivan Vicente, a veteran visitors’ services specialist at the refuge. “This is the manatee capital of the world. We can protect manatees as we see fit.”
Prime manatee-viewing season typically lasts through the end of March in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. For more information, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/crystal_river. For lodging and snorkel tours, visit www.plantationoncrystalriver.com and to learn more about visitation in Three Sisters, visit www.threesistersspringsvisitor.org.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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