Manatees are like many of us. When the temperature drops, they head to the warmth of Florida. One place in particular, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, is the only sanctuary devoted specifically to protecting the Florida Manatee. The friendly sea cows return each winter to the haven—it’s their own special spa.
This year, they have even more reason to kick back and celebrate—not only is this weekend the Florida Manatee Festival in Citrus County, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that manatee numbers are the highest in decades. The service proposed downgrading the West Indian manatee (which includes the Florida manatee sub-species) from “endangered” to “threatened” because of population improvements. More than 6,300 manatees live in Florida today, up from just over a thousand in 1991—a 500 percent increase over 25 years.
“The conservation efforts that have been going on for decades are working,” says Ivan Vicente, a festival organizer and ranger with Crystal River. “Manatees are coping with increased development and boating pressure, and communities are working with government agencies to take care of them. These animals have been in coastal Florida for over a million years, and they are a success story worth celebrating.” While the change in status is a good sign, critical habitats will continue to be protected and manatees are still guarded under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
In the summer, manatees migrate as far north as Massachusetts and as far west as Texas. The gentle herbivores prefer shallow rivers, bays, and coastal waters of the American south and Caribbean. In the winter, they are drawn to the warm springs of King Bay at the headwaters of the Crystal River, an hour and a half North of Tampa on the west coast of Florida.
This weekend, the Florida Manatee Festival welcomes both human sightseers and hundreds of manatees. And a late Southern winter means organizers expect a hefty turnout (the recent dropping temperatures are luring herds of manatees into warmer water right now).
“At this weekend’s festival there is a one-hundred-percent guarantee that people will see dozens of manatees in one spot,” Vicente says. Last year, the springs tallied 700 manatees in January. Some of them return year after year and even have names—Soppy, Mystee, Hitch, Bugs, and Billy Joe are regulars.
Festival-goers have a few ways to get an up-close look at the friendly marine mammals. Local boat captains will offer tours and free downtown shuttles will transport visitors to viewing spots. When waters aren’t too crowded, there are even snorkeling options available for those who want to experience a memorable swim.
“For the most part, the manatees are resting, but you’ll also see them nursing,” Vicente says. “Mothers bring their calves, and you’ll see them all cavorting and being playful.”