(MANATEES/ENDANGERED SPECIES) Hundreds of manatees from the Gulf of Mexico gathered in Three Sister Springs last week, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to issue the temporary closure of the popular Florida wildlife refuge to swimmers and kayakers.

The massive congregation is caused by low temperatures that drive the animals from the Gulf into the river system, which stays a constant 72 degrees year round, providing an ideal climate for the temperature-sensitive marine mammals.

Three Sisters Springs in Florida where large numbers of manatees are gathered. Photo Credit: Cynthia Moore via The Guardian
Large numbers of manatees gather in Three Sisters Springs, a wildlife refuge in Florida. Photo Credit: Cynthia Moore via The Guardian

“Hunger will drive them back out into the Gulf of Mexico to feed but if they aren’t hungry they will hang out together to keep warm,” Cynthia Moore, Three Sisters Springs visitor experience coordinator, said.

“They often do this when the weather is cold. It’s quite a spectacle really, it’s one of the only places in the world where you see so many manatees in one place.”

Take a look at the spectacular manatee gathering in the video below.

Environmental education guide Laura Ruettiman attributes the rise in manatee numbers to increased protection in the area, as well as to habitat loss in other parts of Florida.

“We have a record number this year,” Ruettiman said. “We have 150 more manatees here than have ever been recorded in the past.”

Three Sisters Springs has since reopened, and is expected to close again whenever the tide is high. But even when water access is prohibited, visitors are still able to observe the manatees from a boardwalk.

This week, Three Sisters guests witnessed another rare sight–a team of rescuers saving a manatee in desperate need of help.

Because manatees experience cold stress in water below 68 degrees, they can easily become prone to hypothermia and death.

Thanks to a call from a concerned visitor, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex was able to rescue the endangered sea cow.

“We consulted Dr. Ray Ball at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo and decided to go ahead with the rescue once most of the manatees had moved out of Three Sisters Springs,” Crystal River staff members said. “The rescue went very smoothly.”

The animal was successfully pulled from the water on Monday and taken by ambulance to the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, where zoo staff says the sea cow is resting in a heated pool to raise his body temperature.

“The staff at Lowry Park Zoo seemed positive about his outcome, and when we left him, he was resting in 80 degree water with a friend and some food,” the staff said.

Fortunately the manatee is expected to recover and will eventually be released back into Three Sisters Springs.

Meanwhile, the other hundreds of migrating manatees are expected to stay in the Crystal River area through February until mid-March when Gulf temperatures begin to rise.

— Alisa Manzelli, exclusive to Global Animal