Controversial Encounter, Three Sisters Spring, Crystal River Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Photograph by Nick Zantop

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Two snorkelers on a guided tour reach out to touch a manatee swimming past them in the Three Sisters Spring in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, the only place in the US where swimmers are allowed to touch wild manatees.

The freshwater springs where the manatees congregate are often crowded with swimmers, all hoping to touch a manatee. Weighing 1,200 pounds or more, the West Indian Manatee is a lovable blob that shares a common ancestor with elephants. While most swimmers are respectful of the manatees, obeying the rules of the wildlife refuge, others are less so. Many conservationists feel that allowing tourists to touch the critically endangered and federally protected manatees is harassment and would like to see it banned. 


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