The Largest National Manatee Refuge Had to Shut Down Because So Many Showed Up!


The manatee is an icon in Florida, and for good reason. Each winter, hundreds of manatees seek out warm-water refuges across the state to escape the frigid Gulf of Mexico. This year was an especially big year for the Three Sisters Spring, located in the heart of Crystal River, Florida, where manatee enthusiasts saw a rush of more than 300 manatees enjoying the warm spring!

The park, which typically sees an average of sixty-five manatees on a winter’s day, had to close down in an effort to protect the gentle creatures when they arrived in record-breaking numbers. Although at first glance this may seem like a good thing, the large gathering of manatees at Three Sisters Spring may in fact be due to the decline of other warm-water refuges in the state.


In 2015, Three Sisters Spring recorded nearly twice as many manatees as ever before.

Manatees are probably the most amazing creatures in the world. They are strict vegetarians, feeding mostly on seagrass, and they have no natural predators. They are the most gentle and friendly creatures in the sea, and are often very forgiving of the tourists that can at times crowd them as they overwinter at Crystal River.


On average, manatees weigh up to 1,800 pounds, and can grow to be as much as twelve feet long.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the organization that was ultimately responsible for this week’s temporary shut-down, has proposed stricter limitations for tourists in manatee refuges. As more manatees arrive at places like Three Sisters, so do more tourists, along with a greater risk to the creatures’ well-beings.


But protections for manatees aren’t as lax as they have been in the past. The USFWS produced a video series called “Manatee Manners,” which tourists view before interacting with manatees, and volunteers watch closely to ensure good relations between humans and marine life at the refuge.


However, USFWS puts most of the responsibility on visitors to treat the easy-going manatees with respect.


Here are some tips on how to be a considerate guest to these always-accommodating animals!


  • Practice passive observation: Maintain your distance. If you’re permitted in the water, stay at the surface, and avoid initiating contact (with your hands, feet, or any object you might have) – but observing from land is preferable, and less stressful for the manatees.  Follow the “look, don’t touch” rule your mom taught you at the antique store when you were a kid; it is illegal to disturb a manatee, and you can be arrested for it.
  • Do not offer them food: Hand-feeding manatees is illegal.  This can result in behavior modification that threatens manatees’ survival, acclimating them to humans, encouraging dependence, and increasing potentially dangerous levels of interaction.  If you love them, enjoy watching them forage naturally!
  • Give them space: If a manatee is obviously trying to avoid you, just let it be (this works for people, too). Manatees come to refuges like Three Sisters Spring because it’s biologically necessary, and they can get pretty crowded, so be sure to give them plenty of room to move around! Allow them to mingle with their counterparts, and never isolate an individual or separate a mother from her calf; this is considered harassment, and is illegal.
  • If you’re in a boat, be on the lookout: Maintain awareness while traveling in channels designated specifically for boating. Manatees tend to veer toward shallow waters, so staying in deeper channels and being aware of what’s around your vessel will help to avoid pinning or hurting manatees and other wildlife.
  • Slow Down: Whether you’re on a boat or in the water, it’s always a good idea to take it nice and easy. Loud noises from motors, scuba gear, loud voices, or splashing can disturb manatees and force them to swim away, using up the energy that they need to stay warm.


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