By Francisco Alvarado
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
When it comes to congregating peacefully with manatees, visitors at a pair of Florida’s national parks could care less, according to a group representing civil stewards of public land.
On Monday, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, called on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to ban swimmers from using the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and 30-odd neighboring springs known as the Kings Bay Manatee Protection Area to prevent the harassing of manatees, a crime in Florida that is punishable by six months in jail and a $500 fine.
But dive shop operators who offer “swim with manatees” experiences to tourists say prohibiting swimmers would kill a cottage industry that takes great care to protect the endangered marine mammals.
“Everybody who comes to Crystal River wants to swim with the manatees,” said Victor Oestreich, whose family operates a 27-year-old tour shop in the refuge. “It is the only place you can experience being with these gentle giants. There would be a lot of lost jobs.”
Terry Natwick, marketing and sales director for Plantation on Crystal River, a golf resort that hugs several springs in Kings Bay, echoed Oestrich’s concerns. “It would be a hard hit for us,” Natwick said. “Swimming with manatees is what we focus our marketing on. They bring us our bread and butter.”
The refuges, located in the Town of Crystal River in Citrus County, attract thousands of tourists a week who want to swim the narrow, shallow warm water springs that serve as a manatee habitat. The wildlife service has been issuing permits to dive shop operators to use the refuges for commercial purposes since the 1980s. But since 2010, the number of operators has doubled, with 44 companies offering a swim with the manatees experience.
As a result of more people going in the springs, manatee molestings are on the rise, says PEER staff counsel Laura Dumais.
“The volunteers who patrol the area will tell you it has gotten really out of control,” Dumais said. “Visitors are chasing manatees, standing on them, picking up calves and separating them from their mothers.”
Last month, PEER sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatening a lawsuit against the federal agency due to its lax enforcement of manatee protection laws while allowing rampant human contact with the animals. “The increase of special use permits brings thousands of people in close proximity with manatees,” Dumais said. “Putting them in the water to have physical contact with the animals and disrupt their natural habitat is going way too far. There are other ways to make interaction with the manatees enjoyable for the tourists.”
Andrew Gude, the refuge manager at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, said wildlife service staff is reviewing PEER’s letter and is taking proactive steps to improve manatee conservation and address concerns raised by citizens and wildlife employees. “After seeking public input, the Service enacted additional protection measures to prevent disturbance of manatees within the springs,” Gude said. “These include continuing the temporary full spring closure policy during extreme cold weather events; limiting in-water visitor access to, from, and within the springs; and broader, unrestricted spring run access for manatees.”
The manatee population has dwindled from 5,077 in 2010 to 4,824 in 2014, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. Crystal River and Kings Bay have existed specifically for manatee protection and conservation since 1983, Dumais contends. The 177-acre preserve contains 40 acres of winter sanctuaries for manatees that includes 70 natural springs producing a constant flow of water at 72 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. Because they have low levels of body fat (despite their bulky appearance) and very slow metabolisms, manatees are extremely vulnerable to cold temperatures and become susceptible to heart diseases and other stress-related illnesses. When coastal waters dip below 68 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter, manatees seek out warmer habitats.
Dumais said Crystal River and Kings Bay have the largest concentration of manatees in the state between November and March, the peak tourist season.
According to statistics provided to PEER by wildlife regulators under the Freedom of Information Act, the number of swimmers at the springs grew from 67,000 in 2010 to 265,000 in 2014. A google search turned up numerous deals offering people the chance to swim with manatees at the two refuges. It’s a lucrative business, with prices ranging from $30 to $70 per person.
Plantation’s Natwick said the problem lies with “fly-by night” tour operators who set up in the refuge illegally and visitors to the springs who enter the water on their own. “It can get out of hand,” Natwick said. “But we not only educate our guests. Our captains are diligent about keeping an eye on others. If they see something wrong, they will report it. It’s a case of one bad apple spoiling the whole bunch.”
Oestreich’s family operates Birds Underwater, a dive shop that has existed in Kings Bay since 1988 and charges $55 a customer (the same as Plantation) to swim with the manatees. “We do not disturb the animals,” Oestereich said. “We are as quiet as can be.”
The wildlife service requires operators to inform customers that state and federal laws restrict how much contact humans can have with the marine mammals. For instance, they have to instruct customers not to pursue, isolate, or disturb manatees by pulling or tugging them. Swimmers are also supposed to know how to avoid making excessive noises, like loud splashing, when near a manatee. The wildlife service also mandates tour operators show customers a video called “manatee manners.”
By nature, manatees are curious animals that will swim toward humans and initiate contact. “Some will come to you and roll over to rub their bellies against you,” he said. “But that is only five percent of the manatees that come through here.”
At the same time, they are skittish about being approached by people, Oestreich explained. “When we come up on a manatee, we float at a distance,” he said, noting customers are instructed by tour guides to maintain a six foot distance from the sea cows.
“Manatees don’t see very well,” Oestreich added. “They never see us unless they swim up to us. We tell people they cannot touch a sleeping or a swimming manatee. We only do passive observation.”
He also said the wildlife service is enacting new restrictions on operators that will reduce the number of dive shops in the refuges. “New laws are requiring everyone to have a dive master’s license and personal insurance,” Oestreich said. “That will knock a lot of guys out of the water. Some people won’t follow through.”
The wildlife service’s precautionary measures are not enough, Dumais said. She argued the increase in human activity at the refuges will drive manatees out to colder waters.
Federal wildlife officers received 70 complaints of manatee harassment at Crystal River and Kings Bay between Jan. 1, 2012 and Feb. 6, 2015, according to statistics provided to PEER by the service. More than half of the offenders were let off with a verbal or written warning, 10 received citations, six were referred to the service’s law enforcement office for criminal review, and two were referred to Florida’s wildlife commission. The remaining 13 cases were deemed unfounded.
Since Jan. 12, the wildlife service has received 7 reports of manatee harassment through a new email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) set up to handle complaints. Four were determined to be unfounded and one was referred to the service’s law enforcement office.
Dumais blamed the wildlife service for not putting more resources into enforcing manatee protections aside from offering visitors an instructional online video on how to interact with manatees without disturbing them. Dumais also noted, and Gude confirmed, the service only has two law enforcement officers patrolling the springs in Crystal River and Kings Bay, in addition to the neighboring 31,000-acre Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.
“Relying on web videos as its principal strategy to protect these beleaguered animals from growing hordes of tourists obviously does not work,” Dumais said.