Rules to control crowds of swimmers, manatees in Florida springs

Thu Feb 26, 2015 4:16pm EST
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By Letitia Stein

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.   Continued...

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