Manatees at Kings Bay in Crystal River

A woman snorkeler swims with a manatee in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River, Florida. (Paul Cross, MCT / February 24, 2011)

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. — Call it the manatee meeting hole. Each winter, as many as 500 manatees gather in a protected estuary 10 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico seeking a warm-water refuge.

And because there's no place like Kings Bay, tens of thousands of visitors gather here JUST to swim with the sweet, slow-moving and endangered sea cows.

Just about everywhere else in the Sunshine State, swimming with manatees is either discouraged or banned, with violators facing substantial fines. But here in the spring-fed waters of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, a big chunk of the tourist industry centers on up-close interactions with an endangered species.

There are plenty of opportunities for anyone who visits Citrus County, about 60 miles north of Tampa, to meet a manatee face to face. Nearly 40 commercial operators, permitted by the refuge, conduct tours daily by boat or kayak, charging anywhere from $25 to upwards of $100 a head. Numerous private and rental boats also ply these protected waters.

"Very exciting," said Kristy Weber, a vacationer from Baltimore, Md. "To think that large animal accepts you is very special."

Another visitor from South Florida giggled happily about her tour boat being "held hostage" by a manatee that spent a half-hour flossing its gums using the boat's anchor line. The manatee dallied around the boat for so long that guests from other tour vessels swam over to watch it.

For years, officials of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — the agency in charge of the refuge — and local dive operations functioned under a loose system of self-policed guidelines for swimming with manatees. The operators were required to show customers a video explaining what they could and couldn't do with the endangered mammals: no chasing; no disturbing an animal resting on the bottom; no diving on or riding a manatee; no poking, prodding or grabbing; and no separating a mother and calf.

A visitor could touch a manatee with one open hand, but only if the animal approached the swimmer first. In addition, several areas of Kings Bay were set aside as no-entry manatee sanctuaries and marked with buoys. Few tickets were written against violators.

Then, in 2010, the region experienced two periods of unusually-cold weather blamed for manatee deaths that nearly doubled the yearly average. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, 767 manatee carcasses were found in state waters during the past five years; cold stress accounted for 279 of those deaths.

Ivan Vicente, visitors' services specialist at the Crystal River refuge, said only two of the deaths occurred in Crystal River. But some wildlife advocates began to push hard for officials to do more to protect the creatures from natural and human threats.

In early 2010, a Washington, D.C. group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed notice of intent to sue to stop the commercial "swim-with" operations in Kings Bay. Meanwhile, said refuge manager Michael Lusk, plans already were in the works to enhance the protection of manatees in the area. No suit was filed.

Last fall, U.S. Fish & Wildlife adopted an emergency rule in effect from Nov.15 through March 15 that formalizes and codifies what were previously only manatee protection guidelines. The new rules expand the Crystal River refuge to include all of Kings Bay, enlarge the manatee sanctuary at Three Sisters Springs and enhance enforcement. A camera installed at Three Sisters streams live video of manatee and visitor activity (http://manateecam.viewnet.com) and helps law enforcement officers check out complaints of harassment.

Since Jan. 1, officers have written five tickets to violators, mostly for disturbing resting manatees. Penalties can range from $125 per violation up to $100,000 in the most egregious cases.

"We're trying to find a middle ground to allow people to experience manatees in the wild and still protect the animals and make sure they have safe places to feed and rest and mate," Lusk said. "We have no intention of stopping all interaction with manatees in Kings Bay."

He said he expects the rules to become permanent following public hearings later this year.

Still, some manatee advocates are not satisfied.

Tracy Colson, operator of Nature Coast Kayak Tours, believes there should be a firm, no-touch rule.

"They say they prefer passive interaction," Colson said, referring to refuge officials. "But they refuse to give up on allowing people to touch. It's an endangered species, a wild animal. You're taming a wild animal."

But Diane Oestrieich, who has operated Bird's Underwater Inc. with husband Bill in Crystal River for the past 16 years, sees nothing wrong with the new rules, nor with touching willing manatees.

"We've been playing with them since the beginning. It's not hurting them," Oestriech said. "We tell people, 'don't approach them.' It's pretty hard when an animal swims up to you not to give it a little scratch. It is in their nature to touch and be touched."

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IF YOU GO:

FOOD and LODGING: There are numerous options for dining and accomodations in Crystal River. Visit http://www.visitcitrus.com for information.

THE MANATEES: For more information about the new manatee rules at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, visit http://www.fws.gov/northflorida.

To book a tour to swim with manatees, call Captain Mike's Sunshine River Tours at 352-628-3450, Plantation Dive Shop at 352-795-5797 or Bird's Underwater at 800-771-2763.

To book a kayak tour to view manatees, call Nature Coast Kayak tours at 352-795-9877, Aardvark's Florida Kayak Co. at 352-795-5650 or A Kayak Company & Beyond at 352-795-2255.

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Susan Cocking: scocking@MiamiHerald.com