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CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. (Reuters) - On winter days, Florida manatees flock by the hundreds to the balmy waters of Three Sisters Springs, drawing crowds of snorkelers and kayakers to the U.S. sanctuary, where people may swim with the endangered species.
But as tolerant as the gentle, whiskered sea giants can be of the accidental kicks and splashes of delighted tourists, wild life regulators want to ban most canoes and paddle boards and create people-free zones to protect the wintering "sea cow."
Proposed limitations for this winter are awaiting approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It's kind of a madhouse," said Kimberly Sykes, assistant manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, which includes Three Sisters Springs. "People are just bumping into manatees, because they can't see them."
Manatees flock to warm water sites when temperatures in other places fall below 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius). Without refuge from cold water, the mammals can become stressed to the point of death.
Refuge managers know of no other place where people can fearlessly interact with a wild animal weighing as much as 1,200 pounds (550 kilograms) for a $50 boat ride, just a two-hour drive from the beaches of Tampa Bay and Orlando's theme parks.
While they want to preserve an experience that has created countless lovers of the species, they also want to protect the manatees, a beloved state symbol in Florida.
"If you do it, it's not hard to be in favor of trying to protect the creatures," said 63-year-old visitor Bill Noellert of McLean, Virginia, deeply moved by a recent plunge.
Overcrowding, both human and animal, has become hard to ignore at Three Sisters Springs. The 1.5 acre (6,000 square meter) waters are drawing record numbers of manatees seeking to warm up in waters that are heated by springs and are constantly 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
In 2013, more than 125,000 people came to swim with the subspecies of the West Indian manatee, according to wildlife managers, almost double the number three years earlier. On some days, as many as 100 tourists an hour splash there.
"We've got more people. We've got more manatees. What we don't have is more space," said boat captain Michael Birns, president of the Manatee EcoTourism Association of Citrus County.
On a recent morning, snorkelers bobbed beside a pair of mating manatees, hugging floatation noodles so as to avoid kicking up silt in a shallow area known as "Pretty Sister."
On a kayak, a volunteer for the Fish and Wildlife Service joked about being a traffic cop, while a tour guide yanked away a swimmer who kicked a manatee passing beneath her.
"They are very unique as a mammal in that they are so tolerant of people in this area," said refuge manager Andrew Gude, adding that the manatees do not appear to be suffering harm.
Still, wildlife managers want to rope off "Pretty Sister" through the end of March, while allowing deeper areas to remain open, and restrict tourists to the hours of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Under other Fish and Wildlife Service protections being discussed, only visitors with disabilities would be allowed to take kayaks, canoes and paddle boards into the springs. It is not known how quickly the new restrictions may win approval.
Some conservationists would like to go even further and see the springs closed all winter.
Tour operators object to closing parts of the springs without setting a limit on the total number of swimmers, while some local boaters angry over nearby speed limits filed a lawsuit last year to get the manatee downgraded from an endangered to a threatened species.
"I don't know how you are going to protect this one," said Jerry Sirley, 72, of West Sussex in the United Kingdom, who planned a recent Florida vacation around the manatee encounter.
"I'm just glad we got to it before everyone else has ruined it," he said.
Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Steve Orlofsky