Crystal River used to be one of Florida’s best kept secrets, but as tourists across the country learned about the opportunity to swim along with manatees, fish and wildlife officials are struggling to protect the endangered giant sea cow.
Located about 70 miles south of Gainesville, Crystal River attracts more than 100,000 visitors from all over the world each year, offering close experiences with the manatees.
Jay Needleman has visited Crystal River with his students and family since 1978.
The chance to have a one-on-one experience with his favorite animal keeps the Cincinnati resident and scuba diving instructor coming back for more.
“This is definitely one of the greatest experiences you can have to come play with a totally wild animal by its own choice,” he said.
That kind of interaction, however, has Ivan Vicente, visitor services specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, concerned.
Although touching manatees is legal in Crystal River, Vicente said he discourages people from interacting with the animals.
“The reason why we’re discouraging the touching is that we’re trying to disassociate human contact with these animals,” he said. “We’re trying to help these animals remain wild animals.”
In the winter, more than 600 manatees can be in Citrus County at one time, said Michael Lusk, wildlife manager for the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.
During the summertime, Vicente said, manatees spread out along the east coast of Florida, where hazards in waterways can cause problems for the animals, including interaction with humans and boats.
“With human contact, manatees associate that contact with boats, and they may not take the precautions necessary to avoid a vessel from actually hurting them,” he said.
In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established a year-round manatee refuge in King’s Bay to better protect the manatees from boat collisions.
The refuge has 10 rules to reduce human interaction with manatees, which prohibits people from chasing a manatee or separating a mother and her calf, Lusk said.
Vicente added that the most frequent violation is people distributing manatees when they are sleeping, a time for the mammals to conserve energy during the winter season.
Although ticketed violations can be issued to both swimmers and dive shops who don’t comply with the rules, the FWS is turning to establishing sanctuaries to protect the manatees.
Seven sanctuaries were put in place Nov. 15 to provide a place for the manatees to escape if swimmers are harassing them.
These sanctuaries are manatee-only zones where divers are restricted from entering. They will remain closed until the late spring when the manatees migrate out of the area.
Needleman disagreed with the restrictions, saying the closing of manatee areas to divers did was unnecessary.
“There really is room for divers to be able to get in the water with the manatees and play with them,” he said, “but to go ahead and make places where it’s never going to be allowed again, that seems really unnecessary.”
Vicente said the restrictions help change the perception of the manatee areas as a “petting zoo.”
“That is not the case,” he said. “Manatees are not here to amuse people, they’re here to survive, and a lot of people see these creatures that are charismatic megafauna as their opportunity to have a moment of affection.”
Chris Ward, owner of River Ventures Manatee Tour & Kayak Center, said he has seen an improvement since the regulations pushing for passive observation of the manatees were put in place.
“I’ve seen a drastic improvement in the mentality when it comes to the manatees and the behavior in the water around the manatees,” he said. “Things have really changed over the last few years for the better.”
The FWS, manatee tour centers and dive shops in the area are working to educate the public about the manatees. However, some ecotourists think their measures are not strict enough and pushing for a no-touch rule.
Ward said he doesn’t think the manatees would approve of that.
“I think it would very difficult to enforce something like that because there are so many manatees that want to interact with us, and they do approach people and they will even grab on to us,” he said. “It’s hard to implement a no touch rule when manatees are the ones doing the touching.”
Chris Alcantara wrote this story online.