The Manatees of Crystal River

Many of you will recall my passion and compassion for the illustrious sea cow (and for those of you who haven't watched it, the exploding manatee heart is a must). A few weeks ago, after I attended the International Coral Reefs Symposium I went back to my old stomping ground (water?) of Crystal River, Florida, to visit these gentle giants. I have been traveling to Crystal River off and on for 10 years and, even over this brief time, I have witnessed a shifting baseline...

Crystal River is a beautiful area, particularly in the early morning when the fog clings to the water and air is filled with birdsong rather than the rumble of motorboats. The water, particularly around Three Sisters Spring, is crystal clear.

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There are a number of resident manatees (who stay in Crystal River year round rather than making it only a stopping point during their winter migration). I managed to see a few of these manatees.

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But I also did NOT see a few because, over the party-filled week of Independence Day, three manatees were killed by boats (and one was a mother with a dependent calf who had to be taken off to a facility for care, which meant Crystal River lost four manatees in less than two weeks). Several people I met were fighting to get idle boat speeds enforced not only during winter months (as is currently the case), but also during summer months. Their efforts have so far failed. It's my understanding (from many of the tour operators) that the mayor of Crystal River, Ronald Kitchen, is an incompetent leader who prioritizes the adrenaline-seeking desires of his boating constituency over tourism and manatees (the most basic of calculations would show the latter provides infinitely more to the economy and identity of the community). So for now, boats only have to slow down to idle speeds in the winter and summertime manatees must fend for their slow and lumbering selves.

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The most obvious change I noticed, however, was that the bay is now infested with this invasive algae that smothers the native plants upon which manatees feed. It's apparently very difficult to eradicate. Great.

But this increasingly degraded home is still home to many manatees, who can't simply buy another property in some foreign country if they want to escape the crowd. They have lived in these waters since the Pleistocene and were largely undisturbed for most of human history (save the occasional Native American meal and hunt by explorers). Air condition changed the landscape of Florida and the canals where manatees roam. Development, boaters, water pollution, and invasive species threaten not only the survival but also the quality of life of these docile vegetarians.

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Just recently, kayakers and boaters staged a 'sit-in' to raise awareness about summer manatees but more efforts are needed. If you have any desire to express concern (for whizzing propellers driven by drunken weekend warriors, algae infestations, and incompetent leadership) or affinity for Crystal River manatees, feel free to write to Mayor Ronald Kitchen at rkitchen[at]crystalriverfl.org.

All photos taken in July 2008 by Lara Thoreson.

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I love Crystal River! In college I had a lot of exposure to the area because I dated a girl from Yankeetown just to the north.

I'm sad but not surprised that the King's Bay/Crystal River system is getting hit with algal growths. All of our Florida spring systems are experiencing eutrophication. But hopefully the state will soon come up with groundwater nutrient criteria that will hopefully allow us to start to get this problem under control.

What good are laws and regulations if they aren't enforceable!?!?!? What can we do about it? How can we educate and inspire an ignorant, wreckless, selfish group of individuals?

Crystal River is lovely. We had great times there on small motor boats, but I agree there should be more restrictions.

Jennifer, thanks for writing about these creatures. Every little bit of awareness helps. Manatees will always have big place in my heart. Three deaths in one weekend is inconceivable! Ugh.

By Linette Ancha (not verified) on 08 Aug 2008 #permalink

Sad story. Seems totally nonsensical that for the relevant stretches, that idle speed laws cannot be enforced year round.

Are you sure the email address is right? I tried emailing but didn't manage to get it delivered.

I did part of my PADI open water dive certification in Kings Bay in the early 90s. There are sections of the Bay that are roped off where absolutely no interaction with manatees is supposed to occur. I recall the divemaster was pretty adamant that no one was to touch or even get close to the USFWS floats. Though I have to admit, I was more fascinated by seeing my first river darters than in seeing the manatees.

I also recall there being large Lyngbya mats over much of the springs bottom back then. Later I did a little bit of research into the causes of the algae problem while interning at the Southwest Florida Water Management District. At the time, there were no clear cut answers. Many artificial, dead-end canals were carved into the river during the 1960s, altering the natural waterflow. The City of Crystal River used to pump wastewater effluent into the bay, but that stopped in 1992. According to the SWFWMD (PDF link), the largest source of nutrients now comes from the springs themselves as they carry carry accumulated nutrients from throughout the surrounding watershed.

I also looked up the visitor statistics for Crystal River State Park that lies just east of Kings Bay. Circa 2003, they had over 20,000 visitors per year. That is a lot of interactions to try to manage.

We lived on Kings Bay directly across from Buzzard Island in CR for over 20 years. We watched the bay steadily decline over the years as the manatee injuries steadily increased. We saw thrill-seeking snorkelers and divers harassing and abusing manatees, ignoring every rule of the water. We saw boats speeding...no, flying...across the water even in the winter months during idle speed time with total disregard for laws, manatees, and human safety.It was nerve wracking and heart breaking. We moved to the mountains to a much more peaceful environment. Crystal River will not change until the city officials develop a "get serious and get tough" attitude.By then it may be too late. The word has already gotten around that there is a lot of negative energy down there and too many people are just apathetic about protecting the natural assets of the area. They'd rather play and have their greedy fun abusing what used to be a paradise. Such a shame. I miss what Crystal River used to be, before people ruined it.

By Vangie C. Rich (not verified) on 24 Sep 2008 #permalink

Vangie, it's great you joined the discussion and voiced your "Escape from Malibu" (as Jeremy Jackson calls it) experience. It must have been really hard to watch the demise of such a beautiful place. Unfortunately, manatees cannot retreat to the mountains as we can, so I really hope the Crystal River community can get its act together soon...