Fin-Off: Sea Cows vs. Flipper

By Laurence Roy Stains
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 10, 2002

Last February was my month to swim with lovable sea mammals. It was purely by happenstance: At mid-month I visited my father in Tampa, and early one morning drove north to Citrus County, the only place in Florida where tour boats take you out for a dawn swim with the West Indian manatee.

Then, two weeks later, I attended a wedding in Miami. Rather than sit by the hotel pool, I signed up for the swim-with-the-dolphins program at the Miami Seaquarium. I'd be swimming in the same lagoon where the 1960s television show "Flipper" was filmed -- and maybe I'd get to meet the washed-up animal celeb himself.

You might expect the experiences to be similar. Actually, the two adventures could not be more different. Swimming with manatees is cheap, unrehearsed and 100 percent natural. Swimming with dolphins is expensive, staged and artificial.

Okay, there is one similarity: Both activities are controversial.

A manatee adventure is not for slugabeds. I set my alarm for 4 a.m., jump into clothes and start driving on Highway 19 north out of Tampa. It is still dark by the time Carly, my 11-year-old daughter, and I get to the little town of Crystal River right on the, you guessed it, Crystal River. We pull off the road at Charlie's Fish House, home to Bird's Underwater Dive Center.

After trying on wet suits and picking our masks, snorkels and fins out of bushel baskets, we watch "Manatee Manners," a video that gives us strict instructions regarding close encounters with an endangered species. We don't pay our $50 apiece until the trip is over. For now, 10 of us get in a 24-foot pontoon boat. Our skipper, Marty, starts prowling for herds of our walrus-faced friends in the gray light.

There's no guarantee that we'll be able to swim with the manatees; my sister was on this boat a few days before and saw nothing but the tail of a lone manatee swimming away. ("That's rare," says Bird's owner Diana Oestreich. "Our daily success rate is 98 percent.") But it has since turned colder, and the manatees have returned from upriver, seeking the warmth of the underground springs here that feed the Crystal River with millions of gallons of fresh, 72-degree water per hour.

Neither Carly nor I have worn a winter jacket; by the time Marty stops our boat at Three Sisters Spring, 45 minutes later, our teeth are chattering.

Every winter, up to 300 manatees swim into this area of the Crystal River, according to Joyce Kleen, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She says that number represents about 15 percent of the total manatee population along the gulf coast. Because manatees have only a one-inch layer of blubber under their skin, they go into hypothermic shock if the water temperature drops below 68 degrees.

So, although the manatee season here generally runs from Thanksgiving to mid-March, "it really goes by temperature," says Kleen. "When the gulf temperature drops below 68, the manatees come in here for the 72-degree spring water. If it warms up, the manatees move out."

Kleen says there are two places in Florida where the manatee population is reassuringly stable -- here and Blue Spring, an Orange City state sanctuary 35 miles northeast of Orlando. "But there are other areas where the manatees are on the decline," she says -- notably in Brevard County on the eastern coast, and Lee and Collier counties on the southwest coast.

In those places, waterfront development disrupts their habitat, and run-ins with boats are increasingly killing them off. Last year alone, 81 Florida manatees died from injuries inflicted by pleasure craft. "The manatee is endangered," says Judith Vallee, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, "and the burgeoning human population of Florida will generate additional threats to its long-term survival." (The club, started in 1981 by singer Jimmy Buffett and former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, has 40,000 members.)

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