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CRYSTAL RIVER — They’ve come each winter to lounge, soak up the warmth and eat to their hearts’ content.
Tourists? Not exactly.
When the cold weather hits, more manatees flock to the springs of King’s Bay than any natural ecosystem in the world, said Michael Lusk, manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
They mosey in from the Gulf of Mexico because the springs are familiar, deep and protected with sanctuaries, offering manatees unfettered access to areas of rest and food.
Numbers are down so far this year, thanks to several weeks of spring-like weather. That may change as temperatures drop to a more common Florida winter.
“Some more came in last night and I’d expect a few more tonight,” Lusk said Friday. “It’s definitely down. It’s half what we’ve seen the last two years because it’s so warm.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts aerial surveys of manatees on coastal waters. Reports show 229 manatees so far this month in King’s Bay, with another count set for Tuesday.
Compare that to the frigid 2010 winter, when the high January count showed 566 manatees in King’s Bay.
So what’s the draw?
Manatee expert Robert Bonde, research biologist for the U.S. Geological Service who has studied manatees for more than 33 years, said the King’s Bay springs offer manatees deep, warm water.
Manatees are creatures of habit that builds up over generations. Older manatees shy away from shallow water because their generations have been attacked by harpoon or had their backs chopped with boat propellers. These manatees tend to stick to the sanctuaries, Bonde said.
Younger manatees with no such experience are more likely to move where they want because they have no experience with boats.
“Life as they know it, they’re not worried about people,” Bonde said.
King’s Bay is a strategic location, halfway between the Panhandle and the southern Gulf of Mexico. Sanctuaries in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge provide protection, and manatees flock to the area in cold weather.
The odd thing about this winter is it started cold, then warmed up for several weeks. Bonde and Lusk both said manatees left the area when the weather warmed up and now may return if temperatures continue to drop.
“It’s all based on temperatures,” Bonde said. “If the gulf’s temperature drops below 20 degrees Celsius, that’ll be the signal that they need to find warmer water somewhere.”
Bonde said he doesn’t think manatees ventured too far during the recent warm spell to make it back to the King’s Bay springs.
“Some as far as 100 miles away may be headed to Crystal River right now,” he said. “They’re on that treadmill, using their body temperature and heat to keep their body warm by exercising. The sanctuaries are a blessing. The manatees can rely on them. They know they’re there.”
* The Florida Manatee Festival runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday in downtown Crystal River.
* Admission is $3; children age 12 and younger are admitted free. For $4, attendees can park at the Crystal River Mall and take a shuttle to the festival ($4 covers the shuttle and entry).
* In conjunction with the Manatee Festival, an array of activities are planned at the Three Sisters Springs property today, ranging from educational presentations to entertainment to the unveiling of a Manatee Nebula at 12:30 p.m. Free shuttles leave from the corner of Northeast Fifth Street and Northeast First Avenue starting at 9 a.m. The last shuttle leaves Three Sisters at 4:30 p.m. Three Sisters activities are on Saturday only.