HOMOSASSA SPRINGS — Manatees that winter in the coastal waters off Citrus County will have a new safe, warm, spring-fed habitat starting Dec. 3.
That's when Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park will open its gate for the winter months and welcome the wild manatee population that lives just outside.
It will be the first time wild manatees will be able to reach the main spring that feeds the Homosassa River since the gate was installed under the park's Long River Bridge in 1980.
Along with the recent public acquisition of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, the park gives manatees another warm place to survive during cold weather; it also provides another location where the public can view wild manatees without entering their habitat.
At 10 a.m. Dec. 3, officials from several agencies will open the gate that separates wild manatees that winter in the area known as the Homosassa Blue Waters from the interior of the state park.
The bowl at Homosassa Springs has been home to the park's captive manatee herd — some of which are recovering from injuries — for about three decades. Every year, thousands of park visitors view the manatees and countless fish from an underwater observatory known as the fishbowl, the park's main attraction.
The fishbowl is directly above the springs that feed the river, and that is where the water is warmest. Manatees need the warmth to survive; hundreds died of cold stress in last winter's prolonged frigid weather.
State and federal officials have talked for years about opening the spring to wild manatees. Those efforts got a boost in 2006 when a dredge project took place to deepen the area just outside the park so manatees could swim right up to the gate.
The captive manatees, all female, will continue to live at the park, but in a smaller fenced area within the bowl of the spring. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's goal is to eventually release into the wild as many captive manatees as possible.
The opening of the springs to wild manatees is something that Save the Manatee Club co-chairwoman Helen Spivey has advocated for years.
"It's good for the manatees because they can get into the warm water, but it's also good for the captives so they can have role models," Spivey said. "It's the best of all worlds to let them freely run in there."
Spivey said that there had been opposition in the past from some who feared that people wouldn't come to the park without a guarantee of seeing manatees, but she predicted that would never happen because "these guys are born moochers" and know that manatees are fed in the park.
Until this year, the only way to see wild manatees, which come by the hundreds to Citrus County's rivers and springs each winter, was to get in a boat. The boat traffic has grown in recent years, increasing the impact on the manatees and resulting in harassment complaints.
After years of discussion, a coalition of agencies and individuals acquired the Three Sisters Springs property in Crystal River this year. Two of the no-entry sanctuaries for manatees in the Kings Bay area are adjacent to that site, and manatees swarm into the springs each winter.
While the Fish and Wildlife Service has not opened that property to the public yet, there are monthly open houses, with the last one drawing 600 people, said Ivan Vicente of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
The next open house at Three Sisters Springs is Dec. 11.