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Advocates question tours that bring tourists, manatees in contact

Feb 11, 2009

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. - James and Melody Curtis drove three days from their home in Markham, Canada, to Crystal River on Florida's northwest coast to enjoy what Melody called a "once-in-a-lifetime-experience" - swimming with manatees.

The Curtises and two other guests on American Pro Diving Center's pontoon boat were not disappointed. They got to frolic with up to a dozen of the huge, endangered mammals at King Spring, where the comparatively warm, 72-degree water bubbling up from underground serves as a natural spa for the animals during the cold winter months.

Frigid weather fronts rolling through the region since December have drawn upward of 300 manatees to the 30 or so protected springs of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, according to Ivan Vicente, a representative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That's roughly one-tenth of the 3,807 animals counted statewide in aerial surveys last month by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

And the heavy manatee presence in Crystal River has, in turn, drawn thousands of visitors from around the world to observe and interact with them.

Manatee tours are a huge business in Citrus County, where about 20 operators in motorboats, kayaks and even helicopters have special-use permits from the refuge to guide visitors to view the region's most precious natural and economic resource. But some worry that all that interaction is changing the animals' natural behavior, making them more vulnerable to illness and death.

"We wouldn't be on the map if it weren't for the manatees, but you don't need to harass them," said Tracy Colson, operator of Nature Coast Kayaking and a lifelong resident of Crystal River. 'There has to be a law that says, 'No touching.' "

There is - kind of. Florida statute says: "It is unlawful for any person at any time ... to annoy, molest, harass or disturb any manatee."

But Vicente said touching is tough to prevent because the animals are naturally curious and often approach swimmers and boats.

"If you get in the water, the manatees are going to touch you, so it's very difficult to enforce the law," he said.

Vicente said law-enforcement officers haven't issued a ticket against someone in the water for harassing a manatee in years. But he said dozens of citations are written against boaters for violating speed zones in the refuge.

Melody Curtis didn't see anything wrong with touching a manatee when its leathery, whiskered face suddenly appeared inches from hers at King Spring. At first, she was startled, but she quickly adapted.

"He wasn't intimidating. He hung there looking at me, waiting to see what I'd do," she said. "I made the first move, reaching my hand out, and he rolled on his tummy - like petting a dog."

Told that some snorkelers have attempted to get on top of manatees and ride them, Curtis was horrified.

"I think there are a lot of stupid people out there who ruin it for others," she said.

In the pre-dive briefing, American Pro Diving Center guide Quinn Atkinson told the Curtises' group it is OK to touch manatees.

"Let them come up to you; please don't go after them," Atkinson said. "So only one hand on the manatee at a time. You can rub its belly and rub its back. They don't like the tail or the face or under their armpit."

Learning that a tour guide gave instructions on how to touch a manatee angered Matt Clemons, biologist and operator of Florida Kayak Co. in Crystal River.

"When you tame a wild animal and teach it to roll over to be petted, it is no longer a wild animal," Clemons wrote in an e-mail. "Manatees are not lap dogs, dammit!"

Clemons believes that some manatee deaths classified by the state as natural causes actually are the result of too much human interaction - babies that die after being separated from mothers or adults who suffer cold stress from being chased out of warm-water refuges.

Eight manatees were killed by boat strikes in Citrus County in 2008, which, some manatee advocates say, could have been prevented by year-round speed zones in Kings Bay. Vicente does not believe the manatees that congregate in Crystal River each winter are in crisis.

"They are not suffering stress from what's going on out here," he said. "We don't see manatees showing signs of being disturbed to the point that their life is at risk."

Vicente says the refuge has 37 local "Manatee Watch" volunteers who patrol in kayaks, motorboats, canoes and on foot to educate visitors about manatee manners and report abuses to rangers. Within the next month, he said, the refuge will employ two law-enforcement officers to patrol the busy Kings Bay area full time.

To enhance manatee habitat, local residents are trying to raise funds to buy Three Sisters Springs - a major wintertime haven - from a private investment group to protect it from development. And a long-range conservation plan for the Crystal River Refuge is being formulated that Vicente says will "address harassment issues more directly."

In the meantime, Colson - the kayak guide - says she's just trying to educate visitors one at a time on how to respect the manatee.

"Stay on the surface. Keep your distance. Be still and quiet. Let them come to you. Look, but don't touch," Colson said. "Having the expectation to touch makes people do things they wouldn't ordinarily do - like chasing manatees and disturbing resting manatees."

She said enforcing the no-touch rule hasn't cost her any business.

"I've never had anybody complain to me about not being able to touch them," she said.

Advocates question tours that bring tourists, manatees in contact
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