Love for Florida manatees should have limits, regulators say

Wed Jan 21, 2015 10:48am EST
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By Letitia Stein

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.   Continued...

Snorkelers interact with a Florida Manatee inside of the Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida January 15, 2015.  REUTERS/Scott Audette