Manatee Mania

“Once you’ve met a manatee, you’re hooked,” reads the Citrus County, Florida tourist brochure. “They’re blubbery, yet lovable. They’re big, yet friendly.” This Disney theme park view of a unique American treasure (it’s closest relative is the elephant) omits a central point about West Indian manatees: They’re also very endangered.

People love to swim with (and photograph) manatees, but is too much familiarity dangerous?

Manatees, which average 10 feet in length and 1,000 pounds are, despite their size, one of nature’s gentlest creatures. These herbivores live on aquatic plants and have never been known to make a threatening gesture to anything.

Because they’re so peaceful, because they’re almost as “cute” as dolphins, and because they’re unique to Florida waters, swimming with the manatees has become a big eco-tourism business, particularly in west coastal Florida’s Citrus County, which hosts the biggest winter population in the shallow, spring-fed Crystal River.

Crystal River, Florida loves manatees: Images of two adorn City Hall, and residents can bowl at Manatee Lanes, or look over the stock at Manatee Motors. In a still largely rural region that depends on tourism (with 152,000 acres of wildlife preserve), manatees are a godsend, bringing hordes of visitors from as far away as Japan and Germany to interact with this rarest of marine mammals.

E joined a group operating out of the Crystal Lodge Dive Shop as it visited Three Sisters Spring, a popular manatee gathering place. (Manatees are attracted to the warm water in the spring, which maintains a constant 72 degrees.) Guide Darren Wilkes warned the group to touch the manatees with one hand only, “because two hands is considered riding,” he said. “And let them come to you; don’t try to herd them around.” The group, travel writers, were conscious of manatee etiquette, but some said it was somewhat hard to maintain decorum in a crowded environment, surrounded by more than a dozen 1,000-pound marine mammals. The manatees, for their part, seemed happy enough with the attention; some rolled over to have their stomachs scratched.

At nearby Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park (a former theme park that still retains some commercial aspects, including a small zoo), Environmental Protection Officer Mike Worwetz cares for a pod of rehabilitating manatees, some of them victims of boat propellers. (Manatees swim—slowly—close to the surface, making them hard for boaters to see.)

Worwetz noted that Florida’s manatee population has more than boats to worry about; manatees get tangled in fishing line, trapped in locks or die of hypothermia when the water gets below 68 degrees. For manatees, there is both good and bad news. “We had our highest count ever, 2,639, in 1996,” said Worwetz. “We also had our biggest die-off.” Some 151 died during 1996 in the Gulf of Mexico, the victims of neuro-toxins released by the so-called red tide. Another 60 were killed by boats. Homosassa Springs has 11 female manatees, four of which are orphaned calves, and they are themselves a major tourist attraction, putting on slow-motion “show.”

Manatees have no natural predators-even sharks and alligators leave them alone. People go ga-ga over them, but could we be loving them to death? Florida’s Save the Manatee Club, co-founded by singer Jimmy Buffett, says we should err on the side of caution. “The swims are one of our biggest bones of contention,” says staff biologist Patti Thompson. “It’s not an immediate threat to their survival, but it’s akin to taming a wild animal—it tends to alter their behavior and affects their natural migration.”

Tom Crowley, who operates American Pro Diving in Crystal River, is known as a sensitive tour operator. “We try to go the extra mile and make sure that people are educated about interacting with the manatees,” he says. “We make sure the animals aren’t stressed in any way, and not all tour operators do that.”

There have been no known injuries to manatees because of the swim programs, which are conducted out of dive shops all around the area. Sensitivity to manatee protection obviously varies in these shops, and Thompson advises visitors to thoroughly investigate operators before signing up with one. She also advises people to “look, but don’t touch. You can get all the photos of manatees you want from 50 feet away.”

There’s a strong case to be made that tourist programs to swim with or photograph manatees are what creates a constituency for their protection and habitat maintenance, despite the attendant development pressures. Citrus, for instance, is the only Florida county to adopt a Manatee Protection Plan that, among other things, mandates “Idle Speed/No Wake” signs in all coastal areas that manatees are known to frequent. Manatees might prefer to be left alone, but in an imperfect world, hordes of loving tourists are probably not the worst problem to have.