Our annual Girl’s Trip this year led us to Florida, but not the typical Florida Vacation that most people envision. There wasn’t a single moment of sunbathing on a beach involved. No Mickey Mouse, No South Beach shopping, and No Key Lime Pie. This trip was all about hopefully encountering and responsibly swimming with a manatee. Little did we know that there would be far more than a single manatee involved, but more on that later. I often dream of interacting with different animals in their natural habitat, where I am a visitor in their home (as opposed to visiting animals imprisoned in a cage at a zoo). Florida is a convenient location for a weekend trip in the States, and thus the idea was born into my head.
Crystal River is the place to encounter a manatee because they migrate during the cooler months of the year from the Gulf of Mexico to the more than seventy fresh water springs that are found in this area. The springs bubble up into various areas in the canals and river keeping the water at a year-round temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
The official manatee season is November – April, but manatees can still be seen in the off season. During the November – April season, many more manatees have made their way here to keep warm, so the odds of seeing them (and seeing more of them) are much better.
About a week before the official manatee season start date, we leisurely paddled our kayaks out to the middle of King’s Bay via the canal access behind our home base. The wildlife in this refuge is incredible. We saw many unique birds, turtles swimming in the bay, tarpon jumping in the water, and to our surprise – the manatees!
We were not looking for them at the time, which made this moment extra special – as these slow moving, gentle giants found us instead. We sat in our kayaks and watched as one playfully rolled over and peaked it’s head out at us in sheer curiosity. There is something so special about encountering an animal in the wild; without any human involvement, guide, or captivity involved. We still couldn’t wait for our manatee swim the following morning.
On day two, we arrived at our meeting point and the rules on how to encounter the manatees were given to us prior to boarding our boat:
- Stay calm and be as quiet as possible in the water.
- Do not approach the manatees – instead, let them approach you.
- Manatees are protected under the Endangered Species act and you can legally only touch them gently with one hand and only if the manatee engages you first in interaction.
- Do not try to hug them, swim behind them, or make them feel trapped in any way.
- The people who are the most calm and quiet tend to get the best encounters.
Early in the (cold, 44 degree) morning, we put on our wet suits, boarded our boat, and off we went. With two different stops in various parts of the water ways, we saw a total of four manatees that we swam with in the canals. Two of the four were a mom and a baby. Teeth chattering from the outside air temperature, it didn’t even matter. We had our mission accomplished ten fold (baby manatees are bonus points). Respectful of their personal space, we all floated a few feet away and watched the mom and baby eat the plants along the floor of the canal. The light was shining through the water in such a way that for the entire 20 or so minutes that we were all floating there, it felt magical.
After we had thawed out from the morning snorkel, we were on a mission to kayak to the Three Sisters Spring area, which is the most famous spring of Crystal River. This Spring has absolute crystal clear water. Motorized boats are not allowed near this Spring – only kayaks and swimmers. Even kayaks are not even allowed inside during the winter high season. We rented kayaks closer to this Spring and got directions from the rental location of how to get there through the canals. Once we came to the Spring (marked with a sign), we passed through the slots in the metal barriers that only kayaks and people can fit through. This Spring sits in an area surrounded by lush greenery rather than houses and docks, which makes it look extra stunning.
It felt like we were off an island in the South Pacific. The area is small, but size is no measure in such a prize as this spot. We were in luck again, as we saw two manatees in this area. We also saw two snakes swimming in the water, which made us all glad that we were in the kayaks this time and not swimming like some of the other people around us. There is a nature trail to this Spring that costs $7.50 to walk around and view the Spring from a wooden walkway, but you cannot access the water – it is strictly for viewing. There are volunteers that watch over this area to ensure that no one acts inconsiderately. They also help in spotting manatees and other wildlife in the springs.
I highly recommend Crystal River as something unique and memorable. Sometimes, it feels good to plan a trip based off of a desired experience instead of simply crossing cities off of the proverbial bucket list. If experience was money this weekend in Crystal River, we’re millionaires.
**Looking for how you can come face to face with a manatee in the wild too? Request a quote and I can take care of the details for you.**