I peer through the clear water of Three Sisters Springs and see roly-poly bodies lying like fallen logs on the sandy bottom. The manatees are fast asleep. But suddenly, I sense movement.
A young manatee starts to rise in my direction. It points its whiskered pug face toward the surface and comes closer, nearly grazing my wet suit. My arms are straitjacketed against my chest. I wiggle my fingers with indecision. If I drop one hand just an inch perhaps …
But no. Or maybe. Oh, I don’t know. It is so confusing.
For animal softies, the swimming-with-the-manatees program in Crystal River is an irresistible opportunity to observe and commune with the endangered marine mammals in their natural habitat. Between November and April, more than 700 manatees leave the chilly Gulf of Mexico for the balmy waters of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, a 177-acre jigsaw puzzle of springs and sanctuaries in Kings Bay, an hour and a half north of Tampa. The temperature in the springs holds steady at 72 degrees, just right for the cold-averse critters.
The mini-migration attracts droves of people to the country’s only refuge specifically created to protect Florida manatees. The bulk of tourists venture into Three Sisters Springs, a series of shallow pools that can resemble a water park during spring break. On any given day, between 50 and 300 manatees may inhabit the site. (The highest single-day count was more than 500.) In addition, dozens if not hundreds of kayakers and swimmers dip their paddles and toes into the manatees’ giant tub. (Most recent count, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: 328,000 people in 2014, including 266,000 snorkelers.)
“People are driving them from the sanctuary,” said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. “We must try to achieve sustainable passive viewing. Instead of asking, ‘Did you touch a manatee?’ it should be, ‘Did a manatee touch you?’ ”
The increasing number of manatees and humans in Three Sisters has turned flickering concerns about the animals’ welfare into a flaming debate. Conservationists are calling for greater protections. Some propose banning swimming; others ask for more extreme rules.
“I want them to close Three Sisters,” said Capt. Mike Dunn, who runs a manatee tour company in Crystal River. “We’ve had a good run, but there are too many boaters, too many swimmers and too many people touching them. It’s time to give the manatees their home back.”
In late February, Fish and Wildlife, which oversees the refuge, responded to the distress signals. It prohibited all watercraft from Three Sisters and closed two of its three lobes to the public. It agreed to suspend activities when more than 50 manatees occupy the spring. (Previously, it closed the area only during extremely cold spells.) And it requires tour operators to lead their guests through Three Sisters’ narrow channel, an exit and entry ramp of sorts used by manatees and people alike.
“We found that guided people behaved better than those who weren’t guided,” said Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the southeast region of Fish and Wildlife.
Though the season is nearly over, the agency is still contemplating additional measures. Probably coming this fall: a second round of protections. The new policies, MacKenzie said, will “benefit the manatee conservation efforts as well as provide a high-quality visitor experience.”
Does that mean a swimming embargo?
“The no-touch idea is great on paper,” he said somewhat obliquely, “but sometimes it’s unavoidable.”
Until further notice, the decision to swim or to resist resides with the individual. Personally, I was torn.
In conversations about the Three Sisters issue, many experts point to Blue Spring State Park as a successful model of manatee-viewing. During peak season, the Orange City refuge forbids all water activities but offers a dry alternative: a half-mile boardwalk that follows the contours of the spring. Here, visitors can watch the animals for hours without turning prune-y.
In November, Three Sisters opened a similar wooden walkway for daily public visits. Guests must pay $6 for a shuttle ride run by River Ventures Manatee Tour Center, a local tour operator. (The shuttle company may change next season.) The bus leaves several times a day, but, per the advice of an employee, I booked a seat for late afternoon, when many of the manatees are returning to the spring for the night.
The bus was packed with couples and families, including many children gripping stuffed manatees.
The elevated walkway forms a broad smile around the spring. I followed the leg that leads to the entrance. Along the way, I met an enthusiastic volunteer who spouted manatee facts like an Animal Planet narrator. She told me about their eating, mating and resting habits and shared her own worries about their wintering grounds. While we talked, I watched the animals do little more than snooze and bob for air.
The mid-January morning of the swim was cool and overcast, conditions that would drive most people deeper under the covers. I dressed for an Arctic exploration — I’m not as thick-skinned as a manatee — and walked over to the dive shop to meet the captain.
Dunn, who operates Manatees in Paradise, is fit and gruff like a drill sergeant. Yet he softens when discussing sea cows.
“Once you encounter a manatee,” he said, “you’ll fall in love with them.”
Before we could suit up, we had to watch a video that covered the basics of good manatee manners. For example, do not pinch, poke, prod, disturb, feed or stand on the animals. In short, don’t treat them like your baby brother.
We boarded a pontoon for the 20-minute ride to the entrance of Three Sisters.
By the time we arrived at the put-in spot, several other boats had already released dozens of snorkelers into the spring. Before fluttering off, Mike reminded us to keep our hands to ourselves. A guest plopped into the water like a heavy raindrop and started to kick spastically near a manatee’s head. Mike sternly reprimanded him and issued a warning to either settle down or return to the boat.
The entrance channel was as narrow as a bike lane, and I had to avoid eating the feet of the boy ahead of me. A single-file line of kayaks passed on my left. A few feet below, a husky manatee drifted toward the bay. I instinctively arched my back to make more room.
Eventually, the area became such a tight weave of bodies and boats that I could no longer concentrate on the manatees. I escaped to one of the outer springs but still had to dodge oncoming traffic. I wandered over to Mike to tell him that I had surpassed my comfort level and was heading back. But he beat me to it and said it was time for the group to head back.
On the boat, I was sitting on the ladder when a manatee breached the surface. The youngster playfully nudged another guest and then approached me. I looked at Mike for approval, and he nodded.
The animal brushed my hand with its head, and I felt a rough tickle. I wasn’t sure of its next move so I waited several seconds before I rose and the manatee sank back to the warm depths.