On my belly, face down, snorkel up.

I peer through the clear water of Three Sisters Springs and see roly-poly bodies lying like fallen logs on the sandy bottom. The manatees are fast asleep. But suddenly, I sense movement.

A young manatee starts to rise in my direction. It points its whiskered pug face toward the surface and comes closer, nearly grazing my wet suit. My arms are straitjacketed against my chest. I wiggle my fingers with indecision. If I drop one hand just an inch perhaps . . .

But no. Or maybe. Oh, I don’t know. It is so confusing.

For animal softies, the swimming-with-the-manatees program in Crystal River, Fla., is an irresistible opportunity to observe and commune with the endangered marine mammals in their natural habitat. Between November and April, more than 700 manatees leave the chilly Gulf of Mexico for the balmy waters of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, a 177-acre jigsaw puzzle of springs and sanctuaries in Kings Bay, an hour and a half north of Tampa. The temperature in the springs holds steady at 72 degrees, just right for the cold-averse critters.

The mini-migration attracts droves of people to the country’s only refuge specifically created to protect Florida manatees. The bulk of tourists venture into Three Sisters Springs, a series of shallow pools that can resemble a water park during spring break. On any given day, between 50 and 300 manatees may inhabit the site. (The highest single-day count was more than 500.) In addition, dozens if not hundreds of kayakers and swimmers dip their paddles and toes into the manatees’ giant tub. (Most recent count, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: 328,000 people in 2014, including 266,000 snorkelers.)

“People are driving them from the sanctuary,” said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. “We must try to achieve sustainable passive viewing. Instead of asking, ‘Did you touch a manatee?’ it should be, ‘Did a manatee touch you?’ ”

Stand-up paddle boarders make their way across the waters of the Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. (Scott Audette/Reuters)

The increasing number of manatees and humans in Three Sisters has turned flickering concerns about the animals’ welfare into a flaming debate. Conservationists are calling for greater protections. Some propose banning swimming; others ask for more extreme rules.

“I want them to close Three Sisters,” said Capt. Mike Dunn, who runs a manatee tour company in Crystal River. “We’ve had a good run, but there are too many boaters, too many swimmers and too many people touching them. It’s time to give the manatees their home back.”

In late February, Fish and Wildlife, which oversees the refuge, responded to the distress signals. It prohibited all watercraft from Three Sisters and closed two of its three lobes to the public. It agreed to suspend activities when more than 50 manatees occupy the spring. (Previously, it closed the area only during extremely cold spells.) And it requires tour operators to lead their guests through Three Sisters’ narrow channel, an exit and entry ramp of sorts used by manatees and people alike.

“We found that guided people behaved better than those who weren’t guided,” said Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the southeast region of Fish and Wildlife.

Though the season is nearly over, the agency is still contemplating additional measures. Probably coming this fall: a second round of protections. The new policies, MacKenzie said, will “benefit the manatee conservation efforts as well as provide a high-quality visitor experience.”

Does that mean a swimming embargo?

“The no-touch idea is great on paper,” he said somewhat obliquely, “but sometimes it’s unavoidable.”

Until further notice, the decision to swim or to resist resides with the individual. Personally, I was torn. The part of me that squeals at the sight of any furry, scaly or feathered face was ready to don water wings; my animal-rights half had a thumb on the veto button. Ultimately, the animal-ogler won, but the activist had the final say on whether we would do it again.

First sighting

Scores of manatees huddle near a freshwater spring at Three Sisters Springs. (Matthew Beck/Associated Press)

Lars Andersen dresses like a naturalist in wrinkled khaki and a floppy sun hat, but he acts like a rebel. He founded his eco-tour company, Adventure Outpost, in 1997. Three years later, he cut manatee swims from his programming to protest acts of harassment he had witnessed in the water. In January, he discontinued kayak tours in Three Sisters because of the swelling crowds. And last month, he joined an intent-to-sue filed by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit with a history of fighting for stronger manatee protections. The group claims that Fish and Wildlife is violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to safeguard the manatees in the refuge. It also wags a reproachful finger at the swimming outings.

“This is wrong. I just can’t be a part of it,” he said of the swims. “I am at the front line between these two worlds, and I have a responsibility to make sure the relationship works.”

Despite his stance, the river guide still wants adventurers to mingle with the manatees — just from a respectful distance.

On a Sunday morning at Ichetucknee Springs State Park, about 40 miles north of Gainesville, Lars told our group where we would have the best chance of spotting manatees: past the rice marsh, in the mature swamp forest by Millpond Spring Run.

The six-mile-long river is a living field guide of leggy birds (egrets, herons, wood storks, etc.), turtles and the rare Ichetucknee siltsnail (only found here). Manatees, however, are in the minority. The first sighting occurred in 1993. The count: one. Last year: a dozen. This year: seven.

If I wanted to see a manatee, I would have to pay attention.

When the big moment came, however, I was on the opposite riverbank watching a school of gar with Pinocchio noses. I was deep into the fish when I heard Lars call out the magic word. I quickly paddled over to his canoe and noticed a shadowy figure with significant girth moving effortlessly along the rocks and tangle of plants. I followed the figure with my eyes until the river swallowed it whole.

“It’s a great day when you see a manatee,” said a cheerful kayaker passing in the other direction. “To think, it traveled 75 miles from the gulf.”

I was still processing the first manatee when a second one materialized. It moved swiftly upriver, as if it were wearing an invisible propeller. Seconds later, it was gone, without even a ripple to mark its presence.

Onshore, I confessed to Lars that I was going on a swimming excursion. He didn’t swat me with his hat but said that he understood my curiosity. A beat later, he added with a fair amount of certainty, “Go do it and then you’ll be on my team.”

On watch

Snorkelers interact with a manatee in Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. (Scott Audette/Reuters)

In conversations about the Three Sisters issue, many experts point to Blue Spring State Park as a successful model of manatee-viewing. During peak season, the Orange City refuge forbids all water activities but offers a dry alternative: a half-mile boardwalk that follows the contours of the spring. Here, visitors can watch the animals for hours without turning prune-y.

In November, Three Sisters opened a similar wooden walkway for daily public visits. Guests must pay $6 for a shuttle ride run by River Ventures Manatee Tour Center, a local tour operator. (The shuttle company may change next season.) The bus leaves several times a day, but, per the advice of an employee, I booked a seat for late afternoon, when many of the manatees are returning to the spring for the night.

The bus was packed with couples and families, including many children gripping stuffed manatees. The driver dropped us off in a dusty parking lot and told us to meet her in the same spot in an hour. If we missed the last bus, she warned, we’d be sleeping with the manatees. (Is that really so bad?)

The elevated walkway forms a broad smile around the spring. I followed the leg that leads to the entrance. Along the way, I met an enthusiastic volunteer who spouted manatee facts like an Animal Planet narrator. She told me about their eating, mating and resting habits and shared her own worries about their wintering grounds. While we talked, I watched the animals do little more than snooze and bob for air.

Because of the late hour, there was only a light sprinkling of boats and swimmers. A volunteer in a fluorescent vest maintained order in a kayak. On my way back to the rendezvous point, I noticed a snorkeler aggressively poking his camera into a manatee’s face. I signaled a volunteer, who alerted the on-water watchman to check out the situation. Before returning to the shuttle, she urged me to fill out a comment card, explaining that my opinions counted.

The manatees’ ‘babysitters’

Dive boats float by a protected manatee sanctuary. (Scott Audette/Reuters)

Kayakers at Three Sisters Springs. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)

The mid-January morning of the swim was cool and overcast, conditions that would drive most people deeper under the covers. I dressed for an Arctic exploration — I’m not as thick-skinned as a manatee — and walked over to the dive shop to meet the captain.

Dunn, who operates Manatees in Paradise, is fit and gruff like a drill sergeant. Yet he softens when discussing sea cows.

“Once you encounter a manatee,” he said, “you’ll fall in love with them.”

Before we could suit up, we had to watch a video that covered the basics of good manatee manners. For example, do not pinch, poke, prod, disturb, feed or stand on the animals. In short, don’t treat them like your baby brother.

We boarded a pontoon for the 20-minute ride to the entrance of Three Sisters. The water was calm and transparent enough to see several manatees gliding by. While we wriggled into our wet suits, Mike described his dedication to manatee conservation efforts. The following day, for instance, the owners would suspend tours to assist marine biologists with a tagging and health-assessment program.

By the time we arrived at the put-in spot, several other boats had already released dozens of snorkelers into the spring. Before fluttering off, Mike reminded us to keep our hands to ourselves. A guest plopped into the water like a heavy raindrop and started to kick spastically near a manatee’s head. Mike sternly reprimanded him and issued a warning to either settle down or return to the boat.

“We are the strictest captains out there, “ he said. “Sometimes we are the babysitters while the mamas sleep.”

The entrance channel was as narrow as a bike lane, and I had to avoid eating the feet of the boy ahead of me. A single-file line of kayaks passed on my left. A few feet below, a husky manatee drifted toward the bay. I instinctively arched my back to make more room.

I toggled between the two worlds. When I lifted my head, I felt the stress of playing bumper cars. When I lowered it, I experienced the serenity of nature. Up: I heard human barks of “Over here!” Down: I listened to the squeaks of baby manatees and silence.

Eventually, the area became such a tight weave of bodies and boats that I could no longer concentrate on the manatees. I escaped to one of the outer springs but still had to dodge oncoming traffic. I wandered over to Mike to tell him that I had surpassed my comfort level and was heading back. But he beat me to it and said it was time for the group to head back.

On the boat, I was sitting on the ladder when a manatee breached the surface. The youngster playfully nudged another guest and then approached me. I looked at Mike for approval, and he nodded.

The animal brushed my hand with its head, and I felt a rough tickle. I wasn’t sure of its next move so I waited several seconds before I rose and the manatee sank back to the warm depths.

If you go
What to do

Adventure Outpost

18238 U.S. Route 441, High Springs



A broad range of kayak tours, including outings in manatee habitats, such as Kings Bay and Ichetucknee River. $50 fee includes kayak rental.

Manatees in Paradise

1223 N. Circle Dr., Crystal River



The company runs snorkel tours only during the winter season, when the manatees are in the refuge. A semi-private tour costs $72 and includes equipment rental (mask, snorkel, wet suit).

River Ventures Manatee Tour Center

498 Kings Bay Dr., Crystal River



The tour operator runs shuttles to the Three Sisters Springs boardwalk six times a day. $6 for round-trip ride. (Note: The boardwalk closed March 31 and reopens mid-November.)



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