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Manatee Tours that Won’t Bother the Manatees

Other marine mammals have etiquette standards. The Whale Sense or Dolphin Smart programs give tourists list of operators that play nice. But who’s smart about the 3,000 manatees left in the U.S.?

As an endangered species and marine mammal, manatees area already supposed to be protected, but go on YouTube and search “manatee harassment.” You’ll find videos of tourists coralling and chasing manatees, separating the mom and calf and even trying to ride or kick them. It’s like Crystal River, FL, tour operators live in a 1950s world where they feel entitled to sell the experience of touching, petting and scratching manatees. Do they then drive home without seatbelts into a house lined with asbestos and eat canned soup casserole for dinner? Haven’t they heard that’s not how you treat wild animals?

“It’s this culture of everybody that come to Crystal River,” says manatee advocate Tracy Colson. “It’s well-advertised that this is the only place where you can touch a manatee. It’s the only place in the world where you can interact with an endangered species.”

Tracy, a local, started volunteering with the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge by going out to guide manatee tourists to be respectful and was so upset with what she saw she started her own company, Nature Coast Kayak Tours.  In 2007 Save the Manatee named Tracy and Steve Kingery manatee heroes for documenting manatee harassment, which kicked off a controversy and push the Fish and Wildlife Service to crack down. (Manatee advocates don’t want to stop all manatee tours, just ones that annoy manatees and drive them out of the warm waters they need in the winter.)

“There’s something to the swim with- programs that would be a great help to the mantee,” says Colson. “If you have that magical experience, it’s going to make you a strong advocate.” I get as excited as anyone seeing a wild animal, so it’s easy to see how some one could become over eager to make a manatee connection. But, like most animal tourists I know, I don’t want to do anything that hurts the animal. So I asked Tracy to give out-of-towners some tips so we don’t unwittingly help the bad guys. It can be hard to pick out a good tour because many go through the motions.

The programs that reign in whale and dolphin tours amount to this: don’t bother the animals or make it look like you do in your ads. You stand still and if the animal wants to come close, it will.

* Ask them if you’re allowed to touch or approach a manatee.
* Is their website all about party and adventure?
* Do they show pictures of people petting, kissing, tickling, riding or otherwise molesting manatees?
* Look for a small operation and small boat. While it’s better for whales if everyone is on one big boat, it’s better for manatees if there are small boats and small groups, where the mob mentality hasn’t taken over.


Manatees in Paradise
Husband and wife, Captain Mike and Stacy Dunn, help with manatee rescue and bay clean up. Their pontoon boat only holds up to six. $25 per person, plus wet suit rental. 1223 North Crystal Drive, Crystal River, FL
352-563-0865 cell 352-601-5520

Nature’s Connection
Capt. Hank rides with up to 12 on 3 1/2 hour tours.
$50 including wet suit.
267 N.W. 3Rd. St. Crystal River, Fl. 34429 352-697-0220

Aardvark’s Florida Kayak Company

Save the Manatees works with wildlife biologist 707 N Citrus Avenue, Crystal River, FL
(352) 795-5650

Native Vacations comes highly recommended by Passport Magazine and manatee fans. Dedicated manatee lover Traci Wood offers private 6-hour snorkel tours ($400 for up to 4 people) or $35 (plus equipment fees) 3-hour tour.

Nature Coast Kayak Tours
Tracy Colson volunteers to clean out the waterway, rescue manatees and document manatee harassment. Her 3 1/2 hour tours are $40, including all equipment.
(352) 795-9877 or 888-795-9877 toll free
Adventure Outpost
Lars Andersen, who writes guides on paddling and the area, leads kayak tours of many waterways. $39

Wild Florida Adventures
Brack Barker used to be a parks ranger and enforcement officer.

Williston, FL (352) 528-3984


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