On these winter days when Kings Bay turns chilly, hundreds of manatees crowd into Three Sisters Springs in Citrus County, huddling together in the warmth flowing from the underground spring vents.
Lately they've had plenty of company — too much, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photos of hundreds of manatees piled up like puppies in Three Sisters have attracted so many tourists that federal officials estimate the spring sees 100 people an hour. The number of snorkelers and boaters visiting the springs to see the manatees has nearly doubled from 67,000 permitted visitors in 2010 to more than 125,000 in 2013.
In such crowded conditions, canoes and kayaks can't help but bump into the resting manatees, disturbing them. Unthinking tourists stick their cameras in the manatees' faces and snap flash photos, startling them. To the federal agency, that's no way to treat an endangered species that's just trying to stay alive.
So on Monday, wildlife officials proposed new rules blocking the public from paddling canoes, kayaks and inflatable floats into two-thirds of Three Sisters Springs from December through March. The sections that would be off-limits are the eastern and western sections known as Pretty Sister and Little Sister.
But you can still swim in there among the herd of manatees, and to some Crystal River residents and businesses, that's just as bad.
"Where is the logic of banning paddlecraft over swimmers?" asked Tracy Colson, a Crystal River native who runs Nature Coast Kayak Tours. "It's not fair and it's not logical."
She said she and others support totally closing all human access to Three Sisters during the winter, period.
The wildlife service is asking the public to offer opinions on the new rules for use of the 1½-acre spring, with a deadline of Jan. 2. If the rules survive review, the agency would impose them around mid January, according to federal officials.
They have plans to accommodate the people who are used to paddling in to see the manatees. There is already a boardwalk there, and the wildlife agency is proposing to build an "in-water, non-motorized vessel tie-up/disembarking area" nearby so visitors could stand on land to see the manatees. The agency also hopes to build a pair of observation towers 10 to 15 feet high.
In the one section of Three Sisters that would remain open, visitors could paddle in only between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., leaving the manatees alone during the colder parts of the day. And no one could take any flash photos, except with a special permit that would be issued only if the photography is for scientific or educational purposes.
"You can still take photos — we're just going to prohibit flashes," Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge manager Andrew Gude said. "We've noticed a lot of amateur photographers stick their cameras very close to the manatees' faces."
For the tour guides who bring thousands of people to Three Sisters each year, the federal agency wants to make some changes as well. They would now be required to have a Crystal River business license or exemption letter, in-water insurance for their clients and an in-water guide to accompany the clients into the Three Sisters Springs.
That's to eliminate the tour operators who have been coming into Crystal River from outside the city and turning their customers loose with no supervision, Gude said.
Federal officials say they expect support from Crystal River tour operators, even though the rules will require changes in how they run their business.
This weekend, so many people were crammed into the spring to watch all the manatees crammed into the spring that three tour boat operations called to suggest closing the spring temporarily, Gude said. As a result, the refuge staff closed down all access to the springs over the weekend.
That's the way it should be, said Colson, who said she has given up giving kayak tours of crowded Kings Bay because "it's too stressful for the manatees and it's not a good experience for my customers." She believes the proposed rules do not go far enough to really benefit the creatures everyone is flocking to see.
The land around the spring was privately owned until four years ago. Then it was added to the Crystal River National Wildife Refuge, but access for the public has been limited to the water until this year.
Three Sisters Springs is the only confined-water body in the United States that is open to the public while wintering manatees are present, wildlife agency officials said.
"This is the only place that I know of that we have a tourism industry built around getting up close and personal with an endangered species,'' former Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge manager Michael Lusk said last year.
The refuge staff is also working on a comprehensive management plan for the entire 177 acres that they oversee, Gude said. That should be ready for public review by next spring, he said.
Meanwhile the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a proposal to remove manatees from its endangered species list. But that is a separate issue from the Three Sisters rules, officials said.
Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.