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Manatee abuse caught on tape

Conservationists say it's time to upgrade protection of the sea cows.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published February 11, 2007


CRYSTAL RIVER - For the conservation purist, scenes of divers following swimming manatees or waking sleeping sea cows are enough to make the blood boil.

But nothing grabs instant attention like a blatant case of manatee harassment.

Tracy Colson captured that case.

Last weekend, dozens of manatees jammed into the sanctuary at Three Sisters Springs, and some overflowed outside the sanctuary's protection.

Several enthusiastic divers in the water for a manatee encounter grabbed at, walked on and rode some of the manatees - in violation of every state and federal rule aimed at protecting the marine mammals.

Colson caught it all on tape.

That video is prompting promises of new resolve from the agencies charged with keeping manatees safe.

The timing is significant because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to draw up a new comprehensive plan for the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. That plan will address whether the rules regarding the agency-sanctioned experience of swimming with manatees will change.

Citrus waters are the only place where such experiences get the federal okay, but officials are struggling to determine if the growing business has reached a breaking point.

Colson's video provides compelling evidence.

"What I saw was pretty bad. There was definitely some blatant harassment," said Jim Kraus, manager of the Crystal River refuge. "It's distressing to see this kind of thing is going on."

Violations are blatant

Colson has seen the bad human behavior before.

A former member of the volunteer group Manatee Watch, she watched people feed, ride and chase manatees all over Crystal River and Three Sisters Springs.

When she got fed up, she began filming human and manatee interactions.

When some of her videos were picked up by the media last year, local dive businesses were in an uproar. They said rental boat operators and private boaters were the scofflaws.

Organized tour operators must show visitors an informational program on manatee interaction rules as part of their permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

While last year's videos sparked discussion, this new tape of an unidentified swimmer who arrived at the spring in an unmarked boat and blatantly crawled on top of a manatee sparked action from the Save the Manatee Club.

"I'd just had enough," said Patrick Rose, the club's executive director.

He immediately sent copies of the tape to numerous officials along with a note.

"This whole harassment issue is out of control and needs serious immediate attention ... The present rampant harassment needs to be reigned in or stopped by other more radical means," he wrote.

Rose got a pledge from Kenneth Haddad, executive director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, that the incident will be investigated.

Mixed emotions

For Rose, the latest video is clear indication that the time has come for change.

"I feel very much for those manatees, but I also feel somewhat betrayed by the diving community," he said.

He has long been a believer that swimming with manatees has helped endear people to the lumbering sea cows, inspiring them to work for the animals' protection.

"Right now, I feel that something must be done," he said. "I've totally had to re-evaluate how this has been done and what it has gotten to."

Rose said he was glad that Colson captured what he considered an appalling incident of harassment.

"It's probably only the tip of the iceberg," he said.

As U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials begin to gather information to be used in their comprehensive planning, Rose said local operators need to ensure that harassment doesn't happen.

"People should not be doing this really to any creature ... let alone an endangered marine mammal," Rose said. "This is a privilege that they could easily lose. Those involved in it should police it, or they will lose it."

Enforcement is hard

One night last week, about 30 members of the Save the Homosassa River Alliance gathered to discuss the need for more water-based law enforcement with a group of federal, state and local law enforcement officers.

They learned how thinly spread those enforcement officials are.

As members of the alliance recounted how inexperienced boaters put manatees and swimmers in danger, Lt. Dennis DeLaPaz of the wildlife commission made another point.

"You're going to see things that we're not going to see because you're not in a police boat," he said.

He also repeatedly told the group that he and his officers must actually see a violation to make a case. And making a manatee harassment case is a long and painstaking task.

Several alliance members suggested that boaters in the Homosassa River be required to get some direction on how to operate on the water, as they are in Crystal River.

Colson, who attended the meeting, just shook her head. She said she thinks the people in her latest video knew the rules.

Rose also said he thinks that is often the case.

"I don't think it's even ignorance in every case," he said. "I think some people think this is an entitlement, and it's not."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com.