In my theatrical career, I’ve corralled all kinds of creatures. I’ve wrangled roaches, herded kittens and dealt with a few divas who could fairly be compared to female canines. But this weekend marked a first for me: I stage-managed a manatee.
My story begins before sunrise on Saturday, Jan. 21, as I drove into the dark along the Turnpike. Shortly after dawn, I arrived at my destination: Three Sisters Springs at Kings Bay, in Crystal River on Florida’s west coast. Normally, I wouldn’t even be awake for a couple more hours, but I made an exception because this kind of opportunity doesn’t come every day. In fact, it’s something that has only happened a few times each year since 2010, when the United States Fish and Wildlife Service acquired this land as a wildlife sanctuary and restricted public access. The open house at the manatee refuge offered an unusual opportunity to explore its recently built riverfront boardwalk and witness these enchanting endangered creatures in their winter home without getting in the water.
Beautiful weather, and the 25th Annual Florida Manatee Festival occurring in nearby downtown Crystal River, brought a sizable crowd to this usually secluded spot; I overheard a ranger unofficially estimate total attendance as approaching 3,000. A tent hosted U.S. Fish and Wildlife representative Ivan Vicente and Dr. Bob Bonde of the U.S. Geological Survey, who both presented PowerPoints on the frightening fragility of these protected marine mammals. There was even a camera crew from National Geographic on hand, with an enormous crane capturing aerial footage; look for a feature article in an upcoming issue of the magazine.
My initial plan was to simply attend as an observer, but my friends from Ibex Puppetry were there to present a parade and needed an extra pair of eyes. Before I knew it, I was roped into running interference for a manatee – not a real one, but an abstract (and remarkably cuddly) simulated sirenia, sculpted from foam by “Wavy” Davy Jordan and manipulated by master kite-flier Curtiss Mitchell. The manatee marched with a menagerie that included a soaring bird kite (flown by Scotty Weider) and a crane puppet controlled by Heather Henson. Orlando percussion teacher Mark DeMaio led the procession on a djembe drum, drawing a crowd of kids who happily clobbered a collection of musical instruments.
Puppeteers and manatees weren’t the only exotic creatures on display, as I discovered when meeting “Mermaid” Melissa Dawn. By day, she’s a free-diving performer at SeaWorld Orlando, but in her spare time she dons an iridescent artificial tail – beautifully crafted and crazy heavy at 55 pounds – and becomes one of the mythological merfolk. She’s swum all over the world but says that Three Sisters is her favorite, thanks to sea life encounters documented on her YouTube channel (search for “mermaid and manatee”). She recently wrote a children’s book, and she spoke to the assembled kids about her life as a “freelance mermaid for hire” and about the history between manatees and mermaids (also sometimes called sirens; supposedly, the seductive aquatic ladies of sailors’ legends were actually sea cows, seen through the lens of wishful thinking and a lack of female companionship). Then a phalanx of rangers loaded Dawn into a large leather rescue net and lugged her to the water’s edge for a swim in the spring, prompting puzzled stares and quips about “tag and release” from bystanders.
If you want to walk the Three Sisters boardwalk yourself, you’ll have to wait for the next open house on Feb. 11, though there are plans to build a visitors center and allow full-time public access. In the meantime, though it’s normally impossible to get the view I had on Saturday, it’s ironically easy to get an even closer look.
Though the land around the springs is protected, the river itself is a legally navigable waterway, accessible to anyone with a multimillion-dollar home on the canal or a few bucks for one of the area’s ubiquitous dive boats and kayak rentals. I watched hundreds of swimmers and paddlers rampage through the water, splashing inches above the peaceful giants. Rangers and volunteers stood by, helpless to do much more than shout warnings and issue an occasional ticket to the most egregious offenders of a vaguely worded ordinance against harassing manatees. Several dozen sea cows cowered in a small roped-off section a few hundred feet square, seemingly taking shelter from interlopers in the only tiny area mandated human-free. Here is a perfect example of what happens when wildlife conservation conflicts with property rights and tourism taxes, turning an oasis into an overcrowded theme park – money wins, manatees lose.