Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Don’t Swim With Winter Manatees

It's been nearly 15 years since Adventure Outpost decided to stop allowing our customers to swim with manatees in cold winter months when the animals seek life-saving refuge in warm water sources like springs. That decision has cost us some business over the years, but we remain as committed as ever to giving priority to the winter manatees needs over our own desire to swim with them. The reasons for our decision have not changed. What does seem to be changing, however, is public opinion about this practice. Finally, people are accepting the reality. For many years, a steady chorus of swim-tour advocates, propped up by beautiful photos and videos of humans and manatees frolicking together in crystalline water, have muted the voices of those who put the manatees interests first. But a groundswell of people--people who are willing to set aside their own desire for a thrill when making important decisions on behalf of the manatees--are seeing through the smoke screen. There's still a long way to go, but the time seems right for me to state my case once again. So, here is a copy (with a few edits) of the original op/ed piece I wrote many years ago announcing Adventure Outpost's decision to stop swimming with manatees on our tours:


To my fellow manatee tour operators,

It's time for us to get out of the water! All of our talk about concern for manatees is starting to ring hollow as we continue to ship scores of "manatee lovers" up Crystal River every day and unload them into the manatee's living room. As the front line between the animal-loving public and endangered manatees we have a huge responsibility. We must remind ourselves that the manatees come here every winter to survive, not to visit with us. They need for us to leave them alone. The number of injuries and deaths caused by motor boats, dams, locks and other machinery of mankind is well known. But there is another threat—us! We’re loving them to death.

The same tour operators whose walls are crowded with information about the plight of these amazing mammals are the same ones who carry boatloads of people every day to swim with them; out to the manatee’s winter sanctuary where they are working hard to get all of the food and rest they need to survive the cold. We are intruders on their world.

It’s important to realize that, while some manatees tolerate our presence, many others don't. When people jump in the water, they unknowingly chase some manatees away. Paddling upstream toward the spring, I can usually tell if there are crowds of swimmers in the spring long before I get there by the number of manatees passing under my boat, heading downstream. Even if there is disagreement about whether some manatees enjoy human interaction, nobody questions the fact that some manatees definitely don’t. So why is it okay to chase some manatees away from where they want to be, where their instincts tell them they need to be? If we’re sincerely concerned about the welfare of some manatees, shouldn’t we be concerned about all of them.

Manatees and tour operators share a common purpose. They both come to Crystal River to survive the winter—tour operator to earn money, manatees for the life-saving springs. What’s dramatically different, however, is that tour operators have other options. Manatees don’t.  Humans have the luxury of choosing a strategy for survival. We have many kinds of jobs from which to choose; many ways to make money and keep ourselves fed and happy, including running manatee tours. For the manatees, there is no choice. They have only one way to survive the winter. They must come to warm water sources. They don’t come to enjoy the company of dozens of humans poking, grabbing and chasing them. They come to survive the winter. Most of them aren't enjoying us so much as tolerating us!

Defenders of the swim-tours point out that some manatees seem to enjoy human company. Even if that were true, would that make it acceptable? Haven't we learned time and again that it's not good for humans to befriend wild animals to the point that it alters their behavior? Is it good for manatees to associate the sound of boat motors with friendly swimmers when we all know that boats are the single greatest cause of manatee deaths and injury?

I realize it's a two-edged sword. Much of the attention now focused on the manatee's plight comes from people who developed their affection for manatees by swimming with them. There’s no question it’s a wonderful experience and probably even fires the passions of many budding manatee advocates. However, I would point out that most passionate whale advocates, for instance, have never touched or swam with a whale.  The same could be said for many devoted, passionate wildlife advocates working with many species. And if we’re going to tout swimming with manatees as an educational experience, isn’t it also important to teach ethical behavior when dealing with wild species? If the experiences we provide truly inspire young nature lovers to be animal advocates, don’t we want to give them a solid foundation of good ethics and sound understanding of how to interact (or not) with wild animals?

During the winter, scenes at places like Three Sisters springs have all the educational feel of a petting zoo with closely-penned goats. When seen through the eyes of someone whose judgment is not clouded by profit or thrill-seeking, these scenes are nothing short of grotesque.

We need to take a close look at all those pretty posters on our walls and read the information on them--really read it!. We have a responsibility to know what the manatee's need--especially in winter. And then we must let that knowledge guide us. We know , for instance, that manatees need to eat over a hundred pounds of vegetation every day to survive the winter. We know that making a manatee (or any animal) move around more than necessary burns up much needed energy reserves. We know they need sleep and that they get their sleep by taking long "naps" day and night. We know the sound of SCUBA gear scares them. We know frequent trips between cold and warm water, which often happens when swimmers chase or crowd them out of the springs, makes manatees more susceptible to sickness. We know that by interfering with any of these necessities, we are endangering them.

Of the 60+ waterways on which Adventure Outpost leads tours, our most popular are our manatee tours. These take place on several rivers, including Crystal River. To show our sincere commitment to the welfare of manatees, we will no longer allow our clients to swim with them in winter months. Up until now, our manatee tours have always been canoe & kayak trips with an option to swim. But, from now on, we'll enjoy them from our boats, allowing the manatees to come to the surface and visit with us on their own terms. It's not unusual for manatees to befriend canoeists and kayakers, often remaining alongside of the boat, going about their business.  It's a wonderful experience, made all the better by knowing the encounter is totally the animal’s choice and that we are doing what's right for its health.

I’d like to call upon all manatee tour operators—in Crystal River and elsewhere—to join me in helping the manatees. Let's protect these fantastic animals which we have had the honor to show to thousands of people. I'm aware that this suggestion appears to run contrary to the main concern of any "for-profit" company (i.e., profit)  but I truly believe this won't hurt you're wallets much at all. How much do you pay for advertising? Think of the free press you would get by doing something so bold and so right. I honestly believe you won't lose much business, if any. In fact, your credibility and sincere concern for manatees will attract people to your business. People don't know that swimming with manatees is harmful because they haven't been told. They want to know what manatees need. And, in my experience, people want to do whatever is best for the animals—even if it means staying in their boat. If you tell your clients they can't swim with manatees because it is harmful to them, they will respect your concern. You will also be showing them, by your example, how to act responsibly in the outdoors. And they'll still want you to take them out to see manatees.

So, I'd like to offer some suggestions:

-  Take your clients out to see the manatees, but make them stay in their boats. They'll be impressed with your sincerity and commitment. The people who are coming to see these animals are exactly the kind of people who will appreciate your "sacrifice". But, the best part is that it won't be a sacrifice. People will still come. If swimming isn't an option, they'll be content with seeing manatees from a pontoon boat, canoe or kayak.
- And, now that you're not spending so much time gearing up to swim, you will have more time to explore the fantastic natural wonder that is King's Bay. Take your clients for a nice putter or paddle around the bay. Show them some of the amazing abundance of springs (at least 30) which are scattered around the area. Take them downstream for a look at the incredible Indian village and temple mounds, site of the longest continuous human occupation in Florida (nearly 1600 years!) at the Crystal River Archaeological Site. Show them that this isn't just a place where manatees come. Show them that Crystal River itself is a truly amazing area, loaded with natural and archaeological treasures.

Let's not wait for government to have to step in and prohibit swimming with manatees (I think we all know that day is fast approaching). Let's take the first step. The manatees don't have time to wait for our bureaucracy and, frankly, neither do I. Send a message to Florida and the world that Crystal River really is a first-class act, where people are willing to make sacrifices, not because the law makes them, but because they care about manatees.