The manatees did their job — they showed up in force at the springs and waterways of Citrus County on Nov. 15, the official start of their season.
But have tourists done their part? It depends on who you talk to.
Mike Engiles, owner of Crystal River Watersports, said this year’s start to manatee season has been on a par with last year — kind of slow.
It takes awhile, he said, for the season to crank up. Just because the manatees are here — and they are here in abundance, he said — doesn’t mean that tourists were dockside to greet them. Kids are still in school and vacation schedules often don’t mesh.
“Manatee season doesn’t coincide with tourism season,” he said.
But Engiles is concerned that tour group reservations were down heading into the weekend, traditionally a busy one given Thanksgiving.
“I would have expected us to have more bookings,” he said.
Engiles said he doesn’t know the reason.
“It could be all kinds of different things,” he said.
Every year at this time, West Indian manatees migrate to the local springs to escape the frigid temperatures elsewhere in the Gulf and enjoy their 72 degree oasis. The end of manatee season is March 31.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Refuge Manager Joyce Palmer said the season started with an early cold snap and Gulf temperatures dropped to 62.6 F.
"We’ve around 200 manatees in Three Sisters," Palmer said Wednesday.
Beth Perez, the city’s Three Sisters Springs manager, said there were 180 manatees on a recent Tuesday in Three Sisters and the adjacent springs of Idiot’s Delight and Magnolia Springs. More than 200 people visited Three Sisters on Tuesday, compared to 65 that same day last year.
Perez said the water temperatures cooled off quicker this year and brought the manatees about a week earlier to Citrus County.
“We’re having a pretty good month as far as visitors are going,” Perez said. “From my point of view, we’re off to a good start.”
That’s good news for the city of Crystal River.
“Manatee season is a huge driver for the economics of this city,” City Manager Ken Frink said. “It’s right up there with scallop season. The numbers of people coming in and out of the city swells dramatically during manatee season.”
John Pricher, director of the Citrus County Visitors Bureau, said based on his observations, the season is off to a pretty good start. He was out at Hunter Springs Park recently and noticed myriad manatees and a packed tour group.
“I think it’s been good,” Pricher said. “The weather has been cooperative.”
Pricher said he expects to get a report from area hoteliers when the Citrus County Tourist Development Council meets this month.
And, except for a couple emails recently from folks saying they weren’t coming this year due to the county commissioner-New York Times flap, it’s been fairly quiet on that front, he said.
Before manatee season started, the county received about 3,000 emails and an untold number of phone calls from people commenting on commissioners’ decision to not provide digital New York Times access to 70,000 library cardholders.
People from all over the country got wind of the board's action and many said they were changing plans and refusing to not visiting Citrus County out of protest.
“I don’t anticipate that as being something that will be a long-term issue,” he said. “It doesn’t impact our product. It’s not like a storm where things are down or a red tide-type thing. The product (manatees) is still 100% ready to go.”