A wildlife refuge in Florida experienced one of the most adorable wildlife invasions ever this week.
Three Sisters Springs, a complex of warm-water springs in Crystal River, Fla., had to close their doors on Monday, Feb. 2, even parts of Feb. 3 as well, after being swarmed by more than 300 manatees, according to Tampa Bay’s WTSP-TV.
The springs are a natural refuge for these marine giants, many of whom migrate up from the Gulf of Mexico each fall to feed and rest in the warm waters. The springs are part of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, and also a popular attraction for tourists, who visit to view the gentle, slow-moving animals. At Three Sisters Springs, visitors can swim, canoe, or walk along the water’s edge to observe the manatees.
When more than 300 manatees suddenly moved into the narrow springs, likely swimming in from nearby Kings Bay, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked the park to close for the manatees’ protection.
The incident isn’t necessarily unusual, says Kimberly Sykes, assistant manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. High volumes of manatees periodically move into the springs during cold weather events, where they rest and recharge in the warm waters.
“Because manatees don’t have any blubber to help them stay warm, they have to come into these warm water springs to stay warm,” she says. “If not, they could get cold-stress and die.”
It’s a typical Fish and Wildlife policy to shut down the area when large numbers of manatees are resting there, Sykes says. It’s already happened a few times in Crystal River this season. And 300 manatees isn’t the largest number she’s see in the springs, either. “We’ve recorded over 580 in the springs at one time,” she says.
Manatees are protected in the US under the Endangered Species Act, and keeping their habitat safe is a priority for Florida wildlife managers. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
With the park accommodating hundreds of visitors at a time — on Dec. 27, one of the busiest days of the year, there were 842 swimmers and 340 boaters at the springs, according to Sykes — closing the area during a manatee rush is essential to protecting the endangered animals from boisterous tourists and allowing them the space they need to rest and get warm.
There’s no “cut-off number” of manatees that need to come in before the area closes, Sykes adds. The call is made on a case-by-case basis and depends also on temperature, weather, visibility in the springs, and a variety of other factors.
On Tuesday, Feb. 3, for instance, the area reopened at 10 a.m., but was closed again at 2 p.m. It opened again Wednesday, Feb. 4 at 10 a.m., and Sykes expects it to stay open all day, but manatees can be unpredictable. “We’re just assessing it on a daily basis,” she says.
(Not exactly zoo news but still interesting! Please do remember that manatees are covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act so it is illegal to approach, touch, or interfere with them in any way. However, manatees do not understand human laws, so it is perfectly legal for them to approach you. -C)
Happy Manatee Awareness Month! These gentle giants – nicknamed “sea cows” for their diet of seagrass and other aquatic plants – can reach lengths of over 14 feet and weigh more than 3,000 pounds! Early explorers once mistook manatees, which have large, spoon-shaped tails, for young women, fueling legends of mermaids. Photo at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida by Keith Ramos, USFWS.