As the sun breaks over the horizon and a steamy fog blankets the surface of Crystal River, Three Sisters Springs in Kings Bay, Florida, legally opens to the public on a chilly Friday in January 2015. The springs’ entrance is only accessible by swimming in the crisp 72-degree waters, past three thick white PVC pipes and through a channel lined by algae-covered rocks and tree roots. Sometimes, from the kicked-up sand emerges a gray behemoth, weightlessly cruising through the translucent spring waters.
A then-endangered West Indian manatee calf pokes its whiskered nose out from under the soaked rope that tethers off areas on either side of the springs’ entrance. Wetsuit-clad swimmers wait face down in the water and stay afloat with blue, orange and green Styrofoam noodles, waiting for the young manatee’s next move. Sometimes its beady eyes treat humans with disinterest or explore with curiosity, perhaps rolling over for a belly scratch.
The calf surveys the strange group of gangly humans before picking one from the crowd. It topples from side to side trying to gain its balance while swimming closer to the surface. The chosen swimmer doesn’t try to reach out and touch the manatee. A mere two inches from the swimmer’s face, the manatee lifts up its snout. It greets the swimmer with a kiss and quickly curls its back to swim down further into the 9-feet deep water, exposing its stomach to other swimmers waiting for a belly rub, not unlike the family dog.
The West Indian manatee is driven by a quest for the next meal, warm waters to seek comfort in or a quiet resting spot. It floats on with a thick disk of a tail that pulses like the fan of a Southern belle on a warm, lazy afternoon.
Some are covered in algae, and when they rest at the spring bottom with their noses nestled in the sand and their flippers tucked underneath their rotund body, silver spring fish take heed and feast on the green delights. Others carry around reminders of why they’re protected in the first place: nearly fatal boats strikes make bright pink scars that fade to white over time, or sometimes not at all.
And unless there’s a passing boat or crispy vegetation dipping into the clear waters, the manatee has no sense of the battle that goes on above the surface.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has struggled to keep up with demands by interest groups, seen through decreased funds and filed lawsuits and petition. One side wants to keep the manatee protected as legally endangered because they feel manatee numbers are low and that they’re a symbol of Florida’s springs. The other side values human rights over those of manatees and wants the Service to list them as threatened. And sometimes, the perfect human-made spot to find warm water will end up being its demise if it goes offline during the winter. Continue reading