[NOTE: The finished version of this article was published in _Dive News Network_ and has since cycled out from their server. Because I enjoyed doing this project, I am posting the raw draft here so the information and work is preserved. It's rough in places, kind of like a manatee! ;) Enjoy—Laura]
Snorkeling on Florida’s Nature Coast is one of the easiest dives around, but also one of the most rewarding: the multitude of natural springs that pour into Kings Bay shine with crystalline water, slant with sunlight, flash with fish, and give ordinary people the chance to observe and interact with huge, gentle marine mammals at close range.
But that very accessibility puts manatees at risk, and raises important questions about our responsibilities as divers to the local habitats in which we dive.
More than 70,000 humans visit Florida’s coastal springs every year during peak season, October to March, when the manatees swim upriver from the open water to congregate near the warmer spring sources. That is far more humans than endangered manatees.
You may have heard by now of the prospect of our “loving manatees to death” or seen a video of a manatee stampede. I want to share with you my firsthand experience of diving in the Springs so you will know what is required of us as responsible divers and eco-tourists.
I recently went on three separate manatee dives, with two different outfits: one, Oceanic Society Expeditions, has a strong conservation base. I accompanied them to Three Sisters Springs. The other was a private river cruise down the Homosassa River. Through these experiences I was able to see some of the issues that face both divers and manatees and potentially threaten their continued interaction.
The first day my expedition group dove at Three Sisters, conditions were chilly but that made them ideal, because the manatees had congregated near the spring source. Even though it was actually warmer in the water than out of it, we still needed our 5 mm wetsuits. Our expedition leader had made us watch “Manatee Manners,” a video produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, before putting one fin in the water, so we were well prepared. Great grey manatees ruddered freely around us. The high-pitched squeaks of mother and baby manatees calling to one another carried through the medium of the water. It was a perfect, peaceful day: a dream of any snorkeler.
We expected our second day out to be much the same, since it was Super Bowl Sunday and we thought people would stay home. But they came out in droves.
The manatee insanity began at the crowded dive shop, teeming with tourists wrestling into their wetsuits and registering for their boat charter. The dive shop owner ineffectually admonishes us to watch “Manatee Manners,” barely audible above the cacophony of voices, and narrated solely in English, while many of the tourists were speaking German to one another.
At the springs themselves, the scene only escalated. Picture a chaos seething with layers of people: first there are the kayakers, so you have to be really careful where you swim and surface, then the snorkelers, then what we call the “noodle people”: groups on boat charters with their brightly-colored foam noodles bristling out of the water like urchin spines, then the paddleboarders, then the charter boats floating around with their big silver pontoons. There is no ranger present, only volunteer spotters in their kayaks. The volunteers don’t have power to give a ticket, just to yell at people. The manatees were much less sociable or calm, high-tailing it down river every chance they got. At one point, we were so hemmed in by other boats that we could not get our own boat out.
My third dive was a dive with a friend in Homosassa Springs: we signed up for a group river cruise up the Homosassa River: it was my turn, I suppose, to be one of the noodle people! The boat ride was splendid boat, escorted by wild dolphins. But we were not shown “Manatee Manners,” or advised in any way how to behave around them. We were simply set free to stay within visibility range of the boat. Anyone on the boat could have done anything he or she wanted to a manatee.
Manatee eco-tourism raises important questions that we as divers need to consider. Eco-tourism is so much a buzzword now; it is easy for any outfit to dub themselves an eco-tour.
You don’t need any special gear to swim with manatees, just a snorkel, mask, wetsuit of at least 5 mm (the winter water is chilly), and fins (keep them away from the silt in order to take full advantage of the water’s visibility).
Being an eco-tourist means being attuned to the special ecology of the area you visit. Divers have a special responsibility.
It is impossible to ignore the impact of humans on manatees: it is as visible as the prop scars which mar their vast grey backs, or the chunks taken out of their paddle-like tails. Manatees have to surface to breathe, and while they are at the surface they are vulnerable to being chopped by a motor. BUT there is a larger invisible impact when the presence and pressure of humans cause stress to them.
Restricting some of our behavior around wild creatures is actually, in a rather backwards way, a way of learning about their behavior: we don’t swim over manatees because they rise to breathe. We don’t block their passage because they may be looking for their calves. We don’t harass them, because in the winter months, they are cold-stressed (manatees don’t have blubber) and need to conserve energy.
Manatees are under cold stress because they do not have blubber, which is why they congregate around power plants and at the headwaters of springs where the water is warm. When the world outside gets warmer, they will charge downriver, migrating with the surprisingly speedy thrust of their big paddle tails.
One of the great things about eco-tourism is this: animals are proving more valuable alive, so it befits and benefits the human communities around which they live to support them, in order to attract their return.
Manatees are peaceful buddhas under water. They are gentle, slow, and Zen.
Protecting manatees helps the human community as well: if the manatees are healthy and happy, they will continue to return.
Understand the conservation status of the animal and why are they under threat?
What are their basic behaviors, their range, their habitat?
(for example: manatees are sleeping at the bottom of the spring and rise to breathe, that is why you do not swim over a resting manatee)
When planning a manatee snorkel or eco-tour, first find out which tour operators have the best reputations. Then on the trip, ask yourself, How can I help? Can you intercede on a manatee’s behalf if you see people crowding her? When you go back home, share your experience and interlace what you learned with the stories you tell. These are all small ways of giving back to the land, to the native ecosystem, that add up to big ways if enough people do them. Divers are front-line witnesses to what goes on underwater and that experience makes us a powerful voice.
These practices won’t change unless we are careful to make them change. Don’t go on a boat tour unless the captain or organizer shows ‘Manatee Manners’ and actually makes people watch it!
Responsible diving means being a good example to others, modeling good behavior, not being afraid to correct someone if they are mishandling a manatee.
Do you really want to be there? Does everyone in the party earnestly want to be there? Or is it just an idle curiosity or activity to pass the time?
Our yearning to be near wild creatures is primal, and good. The people at the Springs were choosing to be in nature, instead of in a mall, or home vegging out in front of a television.
That humans want to see wild animals in the wild, in their natural habitat, instead of in captivity, is an honorable development that should be nurtured. That people would be so hemmed in by regulations as to not be able to visit the springs, to see the manatees in their native beauty, would be a sad development indeed.
The impulse that people have to be near wild animals in their native habitat, this longing and yearning to be with them in nature, is a good impulse and can be nurtured properly.
Educate yourself. Choose a good eco-tour. Be a kind diver, and speak out on behalf of native creatures who cannot speak for themselves. This is part of being respectful of the land that we visit, the waters in which we swim. As divers, people take what we say seriously and will follow the good example we give. We can be a force on the side of manatees returning for years to come.