While the access restrictions and speed limits are the big issue in town, the swim with the manatees of Crystal River program is also a major source of contention between the manatee conservationists and the tour company operators.
Crystal River is the only location in the USA where tourists are allowed to enter the water and have a degree of interaction with the manatees.
An anachronism that dates to before the 1966 Endangered Species Act, swimming with the manatees was always a popular tourist drawcard in Crystal River and was “grandfathered” through the legislation – something that would never be permitted if it were proposed today!
But back then the numbers of tourists swimming with the manatees were a mere fraction of the projected 150,000 who did it in 2014 and Crystal River was certainly not the hot location it is today.
Tourist numbers have more than doubled since 2007 when they hit an all-time record of 60,000, and they look set to climb further as travel magazines and television shows continue to publicize the chance to swim with manatees in Kings Bay.
Add to that Crystal River’s appearance in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and you is easy to see how tourist numbers could top 200,000 in the next few years!
For the 26 Crystal River companies offering manatee tours, not to mention the 110 licensed boat captains, the “swim with” is a big drawcard that has huge emotional pulling power.
Something you will quickly come to appreciate when you arrive for your first dawn departure on to Kings Bay to find yourself surrounded by dozens of excited schoolkids and their mothers!
About 60% of all tourists who visit Crystal Bay are from Florida and swimming with a manatee is a very popular thing to do…
The problem is that while many of those tourists leave Crystal River with a greatly heightened appreciation for the manatee, there are always those who get carried away by the excitement of the moment and do stupid things like trying to ride them!
Stricter interaction guidelines have since been introduced, but I know from my personal experience in Kings Bay a moment of sublime but cautious connectivity as a curious manatee approaches is instantly negated by the arrival of dozens of hyper schoolkids!
Quite what impact this all has on the placid manatee can only be guessed at…