CRYSTAL RIVER — With one of the busiest weekends of the year for manatee watching approaching, federal wildlife officials Wednesday urged people to stay away from one of the most popular spots to see the endangered creatures.
Local manatee advocates and the statewide Save the Manatee Club have been urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to close Three Sisters Springs in Citrus County to the public so manatees can use the warm-water spring in peace during the current cold snap.
This week, more than 150 warm-blooded manatees have piled into the spring to get out of the frigid waters of the gulf and Kings Bay. They rest in the warm water to conserve energy and thus are at greater danger from boats and swimmers.
"In 20 years working here, I've never witnessed this many manatees resting at Three Sisters Springs at one time" said Joyce Kleen, refuge biologist for Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
Tour boat operator Stacy Dunn on Monday videotaped a mass of manatees streaming into Three Sisters, a key viewing spot for visitors because of its clear water.
The service stopped short of an outright ban on visiting Three Sisters, but called upon humans to respect the manatees.
"The ideal scenario during this unusual cold spell would be for manatees to rest undisturbed inside the springs," said Michael Lusk, manager for the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
Extra patrols are planned to enforce manatee protection laws.
Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said that simply entering the spring would disrupt and harass manatees. "Letting people into the spring is literally harassing them and literally putting them in harm's way," he said.
Lusk said it is an unfortunate coincidence that the cold snap is during the same time as this weekend's annual Crystal River Manatee Festival. He said people who want to see manatees can observe them at the sanctuary in the main spring of Kings Bay, which is less congested.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.