Meeting Gentle Giants

Where man and manatee find solace in an underwater paradise.

By Allan Richter

March 2009


Between early winter and mid-spring, a unique union of mammals takes place in the warm headwaters of Crystal River on Florida’s west coast. Manatees—hulking, gentle and slow-moving—converge around the river’s springs, which remain 72 degrees year-round, to seek refuge from the Gulf of Mexico’s chill. Simultaneously, tourists—with boats, snorkels and sometimes scuba gear—come to greet them.

There is upside and downside to this confluence of man and beast, though “beast” is a seeming misnomer for the placid sea cow, so called because of its penchant for munching the shallow riverbed’s dense vegetation with its bristled muzzle. Problems with human encroachment stem from the troublemaking few, the likes of which have made it to several highly viewed YouTube videos:

One shows someone trying to stand and ride on the back of one of the calm animals.

But the perception may be bigger than the problem. “Yes, the number of people coming to view manatees, especially in the Crystal River area, is increasing every year, and you would expect that with that increase there would be an increase in the number of instances of people acting inappropriately,” says Jim Valade, marine mammal biologist with the US Fish & Wildlife Service in Jacksonville, Florida.

“But we also may be a victim of our own fairly recent technology,” Valade adds. “If you’ve got a million people looking at one video you may think that you have a horrible problem.” In fact, the citations written by undercover and uniformed enforcement agents on the water are relatively few.

These are for clear violations, such as when a swimmer breaches the buoy-marked sanctuaries meant only for manatees or when people feed the animals.

Instead, the flock of tourists serves to heighten awareness of the animal’s continued federal endangered status. Manatees have fallen victim to red tide algae blooms or mysterious afflictions like the unknown cause that killed many young in the 2007-08 season. Most notorious are the speedboat owners whose propellers have left long stripes of scar tissue on the backs of many adult manatees. Wildlife officials enforce idle speeds in manatee-populated waterways during the heavy season, but the problem continues.

In my experience, young manatees that have not been maimed in boat encounters understandably have been more apt to approach swimmers, though a choice ecotourism encounter with one of the animals is hardly a primary reason for keeping the boaters at bay.

We visited Crystal River this season for the first time in at least several years. Our day on the water was atypically warm, and the manatees were scattered around the river and its inlets and channels rather than being congregated near the source springs.

In previous seasons, we have been in the center of early-morning manatee mating rituals, with the animals breaching the water in a seldom-seen animated state. One of the most satisfying sights is a young calf nursing on her mother, just at the point where the flipper meets the body.

One development we had not seen on earlier Crystal River visits bodes well for both human and manatee: The river seemed to be populated with a flotilla of kayakers, giving tourists another source of exercise and the animals a trauma-free motorless watercraft. Also dotting the water were the usual motorized johnboats and larger pontoon boats each carrying a dozen or so members of a snorkeling tour group.

A kayak is the craft of choice for septuagenarian Barbara McBride, whom I found seated by the river’s Three Sisters spring keeping an undercover eye on its sanctuary to ensure tourists were on their best behavior; she reported that they had been.

“I’m 77 years old, and I’m afraid if I weren’t out here doing all this exercise I’d be sitting in front of the television,” McBride says, adding that the kayak is nimble and lets her visit nooks and crannies in the river that she would otherwise miss with a larger boat. Her family moved nearby from Massa­chusetts so her husband could be near the water to help mollify his asthma symptoms. She began volunteering for US Fish & Wildlife in 2003, having fallen under the manatees’ spell a decade earlier. “I was swimming along this very sanctuary and I became aware there was someone swimming alongside me,” she recalled. “It was a manatee, and we locked eyes.”

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