Better Snorkeling With Manatees

Manatees are an endangered species. Should people snorkel with them? Before we went to Crystal Springs, Florida, to snorkel with manatees, I called a park in the Crystal Springs area to talk to a naturalist about the issue.  I asked, straight out, if there was any controversy about this closeup interaction with the species. She said clearly no. She was so determined about it that I did not call anyone else. Okay. No controversy. Frankly, I was surprised.

So we snorkeled with manatees. Now, having had the experience, and it is a terrrific experience, I am not sure I have the right to say. “Okay, now that I have gone no one else should go.”  But I have come back with some ideas about how to make the experience better for people and more conservation-minded for manatees.

Most people know the manatees suffer from collisions with boats. This is a major cause of death for this rare species. Recent studies indicate that although most people say they slow down for manatee area, they do not, in fact, do so. That is an issue for boat owners. I was surprised by how fast even the manatee-watching boats went on the way to and from the site.

But other stresses on the species include being “over loved.”  Lots of people want to see the manatees. Swim with the manatees. In Crystal River and Homossassa, many businesses are built on just these activities. We went to an excellent, well-respected organization. Great staff. As waited for all our passengers to suit up, we watched the manatee informational/rules video. It covered some of the conservation threats and very briefly, how to behave around a manatee. Do not pursue them. Passively watch them. It’s okay to touch them if they approach you. If you touch them, do so with only one hand.

Unfortunately, even before we even boarded the boat, we had evidence that the manatees were not fully protected. After our video, the videographer showed footage of the previous boat’s trip to some of its passengers. We saw clear violations of the rules. A lady clearly reached out with one arm and then the other, touching the manatee at the same time. It was not a hug, but close to it. The videographer/boat captain pointed them out. “I guess she didn’t understand what I said. I think she may have been French…We could have gotten in trouble for that. There are people out there watching, from cameras and canoes, monitoring what we do. You can be fined.”

Well, that was reassuring. This operation must take these rules seriously. As we traveled down the river, we saw more safeguards.  Several small parts of the river were roped off. The manatees can stay in there, unbothered. We could see, in one cove, dozens of rounded manatee backs sticking up where they were taking advantage of this refuge. No visitors swim or kayak in there. A few homeowners have boats docked in these areas. But, of course, the area is right in front of their homes.

Our captain parked the boat in a sandy/muddy area, next to a roped off, manatee resting spot. 4 or 5 other boats were anchored nearby. Kayakers were tooling around in the water.

The manatees have to leave their spot if they wanted to swim up in the spring. That was where the trouble was. Snorkelers, kayakers, and divers were swimming into and out of the spring, as well.

The first big issue was the conflict of interest involved in our boat captain also being our videographer. She was the first in our group to move close to the manatees. She swam forward and right over one, on purpose, to video it. This shocked me, at first. I thought we were supposed to let the manatees approach us.

Of course, once she did so, the others in the group did the same. I saw snorkelers actually chasing manatees. A very nice couple, one an experienced diver, seemed to totally bypass all we had learned. They actively pursued the manatees.

Only later did they seem to realize that this wasn’t necessary. There were manatees here and there. In the hour or so that I snorkeled, about 6 of them swam under me, just on their daily rounds. I worked hard to keep still, and hold my fins up, fully floating, so they’d have room to go about their business.

The point was that after the trip, the captain seemed to make money directly off the folks buying the video DVDs. (It seemed the deal was to pay her, not the shop. Perhaps that is how they avoided paying her very little or not at all.) So…however much she cares about manatees, her incentive as a business person is to maximize our closeness with the manatees so she can get the manatees AND the snorkelers in the shots.

This is much harder to do than just giving people a good encounter with manatees, a feeling of being in their world. For video, you have to close in on the manatees, and do so in the clear water up in the springs, where you get the best video. A tall order.

I sensed that she had mixed feelings about it. Just think: she isn’t doing this for one nature documentary. She is doing this several times a day, every day, for every boat customer.  That doesn’t give her the freedom to monitor what the snorkelers are doing, or give them a little correction if they need it. It’s just too much to ask one person to do. In our opinion, the commercial for-sale video thing is just one big bad idea. People can snap a photo or video with their own camera, fine. But having the leader actively pursuing the creatures for photography set a bad example and stopped her from monitoring the overall activities of her customers. This kind of arrangement should be banned.

I don’t think we can fault this one shop for doing it. Why? Because they likely have to compete with all the other shops doing it. The only way to manage this is for all of them to stop the commercial video by the guide.

A few small changes in snorkeler/diver education could help the manatees. An introductory video to manatee rules is not enough. If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I would not have believed it. People just did not act on any of what they supposedly learned. I believe, in addition to the video, that the captain should be required to give a quick, five minute review with large flip charts, just before the snorkelers get in the water. (I have seen this kind of review for divers on diveboats.) It should be clear cut.

Do you agree not to chase after the manatees?   (Everyone would actually have to say yes. As in acknowledge the info.)

If approached by a manatee, do you agree to only use one hand to touch them?  YES.

Will you be “quiet like a manatee” and avoid splashing, extra kicking, and noise?  YES

Etcetera. Something like that. Five questions should do it.

As excited as people are, and distracted by getting all the gear and wetsuits at the shop, they need review on those rules, right on site, just before getting in.

Another big problem was the bottleneck, the area where the snorkelers, manatees, divers, and kayakers entered the spring. This was a major traffic jam. As a snorkeler, I was trying to navigate and respectfully avoid the manatees. But you can’t, as a snorkeler, keep track of what is under you, when you are being bonked by paddles and also actual kayaks, above water.  I don’t think there is any reason that kayaks or snorkelers are a big issue. It’s just that the two don’t mix. Above and below water traffic at the same time does not work. They literally need a traffic person at the entrance of the spring to hold back one type of traffic, then let the other go in.

The next issue is divers. When we entered the Spring, divers had been doing a checkout dive there and the water was murky from these inexperienced divers stirring up the sand and standing on the bottom as they accomplished their buoyancy and mask tasks. This was inexcusable!  To do this kind of checkout at such a fragile ecological spot is crazy.  It’s asking for trouble. In fact, I don’t think SCUBA divers should be allowed into the springs at all. The water is so shallow that you can see from a snorkeling viewpoint just fine. There just shouldn’t be folks consistently deeper. The manatees should have at least that world to themselves. Snorkelers should be asked not to skin dive—dive deeper from the surface— as well.

The last big issue, perhaps the biggest problem for the manatees, was the three local kids who came kicking and screaming into the spring and actively chased the manatee. Clearly, they had no instruction in what to do because they were not on a tour. The tour leaders said this was a common problem. In this case, none of the tour leaders even bothered to correct the kids’ behavior. I called out the kids and told them not to hassle the manatees.

Even if the kids had been given some guidance, they lacked two major things: flotation and fins. I had to sympathize. The water was freezing cold and they were splashing to keep warm and to keep afloat and to swim. This, in turn, creates a lot of waves. There was really no way they could just float and quietly watch the animals, even if they had wanted to. Their little feet had to kick to keep afloat.

No one should be allowed in the springs without some manatee education, plus a wetsuit, a snorkel vest, or some other kind of flotation. And they must have fins, so they can kick gently on top of the water. In fairness to local residents, perhaps some spare sets of these should be available for checking out near the entrances to the major springs.

Even with all these safeguards, the manatees would still need rest. Zoo animals have “off time” when they are taken off display to rest. Perhaps afternoon manatee trips should be cancelled or limited to certain hours. We were on an afternoon trip. The manatees were trying to snooze. I saw some come up from their naps, and actively try to find a quiet spot, away from snorkelers, to sleep.

Having boats there in large numbers also causes a real build up of boat fumes, right above water where we are all snorkeling and the manatees are breathing. They are mammals, like us, after all. Perhaps there needs to be some limit in the number of boats, or perhaps they should anchor farther away from the manatee resting area.

How can all this be done? It will cost money. Yes, it will cost money to have extra educational materials and someone to monitor the major spring entrances. But there are people making good money off these animals in that community. I can imagine the local pressure on conservation officials and concerned citizens to go along with the status quo is tremendous. But if the whole operation isn’t cleaned up more, I think the entire practice of snorkeling with manatees could be banned, perhaps should be banned.

I can only compare this with the careful control of wildlife encounters in the Galapagos Islands. The guides and rangers at that park have it down to a science. They tow a hard line, but even then, ecotourism does have somewhat of an impact.   The manatees are wondrous, humongous creatures. I am sure that encountering has inspired people and made them more bonded with nature and interested in conservation. That said, I don’t see the snorkeling with manatees working long term without some serious changes for the good of manatees and observers.

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