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Rare video shows hungry manatee eating from tree at Three Sisters Springs

Published Feb. 12, 2016

CRYSTAL RIVER — Volunteer Kathy Lemmer was telling a group of onlookers last month about Three Sisters Springs, explaining its hydrology and history with manatees, when one of the lumbering oafs emerged from the warm springs waters, lips flapping wide, and started munching on a tree.

It's unusual to see a manatee poke its head out of the water in search of food. Usually, manatees are content to graze on sea grass along the ocean floor.

This was rare.

So Lemmer started recording.

"He is hungry!" one voice declares on the video, posted Wednesday to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Facebook page.

"Are you done now?" another person asks. "Oh my goodness, you are busy."

In the video, the manatee munches on Spanish moss draped from branches dangling near the water, an environmental phenomenon that only occurs when the tide is high enough to bridge the space between the water and the trees.

Ivan Vicente, visitor services specialist at the wildlife refuge, said he's pretty sure the manatee got a mouthful of poison ivy branches, too.

"They don't care," he said, laughing.

In his 10 years at the refuge, Vicente said he'd never seen anything like it.

"It's not a common occurrence," he said.

What is more common, however, is the presence of the manatees at Crystal River, especially in Three Sisters Springs. Every winter, when the water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico drop, the sea cows meander into the springs' warm waters, which hover at a constant 72 degrees.

This week, Three Sisters Springs has closed and reopened several times due to the high volume of manatees congregating during high tide. Too much human interaction can disturb the manatees while they're trying to rest, Vicente said.

Contact Katie Mettler at kmettler@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.