Every fall when the temperatures start to drop, large numbers of manatees make what has become for them a familiar pilgrimage to spring-fed waters in Crystal River, where the temperature is a relatively toasty 72 degrees year-round.
There, they’re invariably met by snorkel-wearing swimmers — lots of them. Whether they arrive by tour boat or private transportation, crowds of people line up to commune, up close and personal, with the sea cows in their native environment. Some manatees can be found at the springs almost year-round, but the big concentrations in the cooler months have become an important source of tourism in Crystal River and a reliable source of income for tour boat operators and others who cater to the manatee-loving crowds.
Soon, though, there will be smaller crowds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tentatively has decided to further reduce the number of human swimmers allowed in Crystal River’s Three Sisters Springs during peak manatee season.
Wildlife officials originally proposed limiting the number of swimmers in Three Sisters to 29 at any one time. But they reduced the amount to 13 after conducting a tour-guide-led study and consulting with the U.S. Coast Guard, Crystal River city officials and the Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, among others.
“We saw the potential for disturbances with the manatee element there,” said Ivan Vicente, visitor services specialist for the Crystal River/King’s Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife will decide by the end of December or early next year whether to make the number official, said Crystal River City Manager Dave Burnell. He said the agency is taking comments from residents and city officials until early next week that could influence the ruling.
“We’ve got a period right here where we need to respond,” he said.
Until the decision becomes official, the springs will remain open to swimmers entering the water by land; the area is closed to kayaks, paddle boards and other watercraft.
The Crystal River/King’s Bay area is home to 70 springs and is the largest winter refuge for manatees on the Florida Gulf Coast. There usually are about 100 manatees in the springs at any one time, though the number occasionally increases dramatically, according to wildlife officials. On Dec. 27 of last year, 534 manatees were counted at one time, setting a record for that region of King’s Bay.
Three Sisters’ food sources are big attractions for manatees because the surrounding areas of Crystal River have become plagued by pollution, clouding the once pristine waters. Recent storms also have washed saltwater into the bay, killing much of the hydrilla – an aquatic plant and a vital food source for manatees.
On Sept. 3, Vicente said, about 40 volunteer Crystal River tour guides conducted a tour simulation at Three Sisters. Two tour guides led two groups of four visitors and three photographers at a time into the springs to see how manatees reacted. Tour operators monitored the simulation with small drones.
After the simulated tour and other feedback, Vicente said, wildlife officials decided 13 swimmers would be the optimal amount allowed into the springs at one time with manatees present.
Some people argued no swimmers should be allowed, arguing they inevitably would disturb the marine mammals. Vicente said about half of the Crystal River tour operators agreed with the number, while the other half opposed it.
“It’s crazy, I’ve already had people call and tell me they heard they will no longer be able to swim with manatees,” said Diane Oestreich, who with her husband, Bill, owns Bird’s Underwater, which offers swimming-with-the-manatees tours.
Oestreich said she agrees that the springs need to be regulated but said limiting the amount of swimmers to 13 is extreme.
“We are not trying to fight tooth and nail to let everybody up in Three Sisters,” she said. “We’re looking for balance.”
Wildlife officials have proposed a lottery that could determine which tour operators can enter the springs, but Burnell said that plan also is tentative.
“That was the original plan in the first environmental assessment,” he said.
Wildlife officials have since backed away from the idea, Burnell said, until they can determine what will qualify operators for the lottery.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to conduct daily research to see how the impending system is going to work, Vicente said, including ethological studies that will gauge interactions between swimmers and manatees.
“It will definitely be documented and analyzed by an outside party throughout the winter,” Vicente said.
Burnell said wildlife officials generally support swimming with manatees, but the evidence against it in this case was too great.
“I’m hoping that we can ask for additional people in there once we can prove we can do it well,” he said. “There’s been so many people in there in the past, we haven’t been able to prove that.”
Regardless of what wildlife officials decide, Burnell said, there is more than 600 acres throughout the rest of King’s Bay where visitors can swim with manatees.
“We’re talking about a less than one-acre area where people will be restricted,” he said.