TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - Tourists may keep swimming this winter with endangered Florida manatees in cramped Three Sisters Springs under new rules announced by federal wildlife managers on Thursday to protect the beloved "sea cows" coming to the U.S. sanctuary to warm up.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes the measures will control crowding in the springs, where hundreds of manatees seek refuge during cold snaps, often drawing equally large numbers of snorkelers and kayakers.
The congestion can lead to accidental bumps and kicks to the gentle sea mammal, which during cold snaps seek warmth in the spring waters that constantly stay 72 Fahrenheit.
"Three Sisters Springs has become an increasingly popular area, both for manatees and for visitors," said refuge manager Andrew Gude in a call with reporters.
On extremely cold days this year, the springs have seen 500 manatees, he said. In such conditions, wildlife officers have closed the waters to swimmers.
Now even on days when the springs remain open, swimmers will be prohibited from two popular areas within the 1.5 acre springs, which are part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, located north of Tampa.
Regulators dropped a proposal to restrict swimmers to the warmer hours of the day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Refuge managers said they realized that the tidal flow patterns were more important to the manatees than the daily temperature cycle.
Additionally, paddlers will be asked to tie up their kayaks and canoes at the entrance, then swim into the springs.
"Often kayaks can't see where the manatees are. They have potential for running them over and bumping them," said Gude, who plans to seek local government support for a ban on paddle boats inside the springs.
The restrictions, which will be implemented beginning next week, apply through the end of the winter manatee season on March 31. Wildlife regulators said they will study the impact of the new rules as they consider future regulations.
Some conservationists are pressing to close entirely Three Sisters Springs to swimmers during the winter.
"This doesn’t begin to take care of the problem," said Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.
Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Eric Beech