Crystal River: Swimming with the Manatees

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The City of Crystal River is located in Citrus County on the Nature Coast of Florida.  The Nature Coast, unofficially includes eight counties on the bend of Florida that lines the Gulf of Mexico.  The city of just over 3,000 is best known for the manatees which are attracted to its springs during the winter months.  It is the only place in the USA where it is legal to interact with manatees in their natural environment.

Swim with the Manatees Tour

A chance to swim with a manatee is what attracted me to Crystal River.  I read that you had to book a tour well in advance, so I thought I would not be so lucky to find a spot in early March at the last minute.  Regardless, I made a few calls.  One company didn’t call me back, but the other, Crystal River Watersports, answered all my questions immediately. The biggest one being, “May my dog come?”

As long as I booked a private tour, “yes”.  So, Miss Annie cost me a substantial amount of money, but for me, it was worth every penny.  For starters, the company was located on the outskirts of Crystal River just minutes from the Crystal River Preserve State Park where I took a 7 mile walk the previous day.  The trailhead didn’t have a “no overnight parking” sign, so that is where I stayed in VANgo for the night, given I had to arrive by 6:30am. On a side note, for those who don’t camp, there is a Days Inn located next door to Crystal River Watersports.

The Boat Ride

After filling out the paperwork, pulling on a wetsuit, and watching the “do’s and don’t’s” video, Annie and I joined our guide Dakota and Captain Jim on the 6-passenger pontoon, boat.  As we departed the dock around 7am, the water temperature at 72 degrees was warmer than the air temperature!  Fortunately, the plastic flaps which zipped down from the canopy blocked the breeze as we coasted down the canal.

Cyrstal River Watersports boat dock and canal

While having to take a little longer boat ride along the canal and down crystal river to the springs could be considered a disadvantage with less time in the water with the manatees, I found it to be a pleasant tour that wasn’t that long anyway.  We saw a gator and some birds along the way, and it also gave Annie some time to settle down on the boat. 

The advantage of using Crystal River Watersports is having the best guides around.  They were the first company to start the tours, and despite Dakota’s young age, he has been a guide for years.  As a result, I got an incredible experience.

Kings Bay

While Three Sisters is the famous spring where many manatees hang out, the manatees mostly sleep on the bottom.  For a more playful experience, Dakota and Jim took me to Kings Bay and its spring, on the outskirts of Three Sisters.

Kings Bay is a first magnitude Florida Springs Complex.  The first magnitude classification means that the spring discharges at least 64.6 million gallons of water a day or 100 cubic feet per second.  At Kings Bay, over 70 springs pump out over 600 million gallons of water!

Mating Manatees

We looked around for a little bit before settling on a pair of manatees which we shared with another boat from their company.  I slipped on the required, inflatable life vest, as well as my mask and snorkel, though equipment is provided, and no fins are allowed. 

Dakota and I climbed down the ladder while Annie and Jim stayed aboard.  Dakota led me to the manatees which were mating (or at their young age at least trying to).  Consequently, they had stirred up the mud in the shallow bay, despite it being high tide.  With visibility somewhat lacking and the manatees more interested in each other, we went in search of a better option.

annie on the boat

I was kind of glad we moved, given my tour wasn’t very private with the group from the other boat!  That said, there were far less people around than I expected.  Dakota and Jim thought so too.  Perhaps it was due to a weekday visit, and it being near the end of the season as many manatees had already left for the now warm Gulf saltwater.

A Mama and It’s Baby

Regardless, after moving we found several more manatees.  First, we spotted a mama and its baby.  They were hanging out in the Kings Bay Manatee Refuge, marked by a line and buoys which we could not cross.  Next a single manatee swam nearby us but was still in the refuge.  Dakota had me wait outside the buoy and line, while he checked another place 20 yards away. 

mama and baby manatee in kings bay
mama and baby manatee in kings bay

While I waited, it came swimming right to me!  This was very exciting, and as much as I wanted to reach out and touch it, I followed the rules and kept my hands to myself.

crystal river manatee
crystal river manatee

Mugged by Manatees

It turns out, the manatees don’t always keep their fins to themselves!  Two more came to the boat as they like to nibble on the lines, so we swam back there.  The next thing we knew, we were being mugged by manatees!  They particularly liked Dakota.  They loved sucking on his loose, orange shirt, and nearly pulled his bathing suit off!  I was snapping photos of the two with him and didn’t notice I caught a blooper!

manatees and dakota

Soon, they came to visit me.  They chomped on the loose strap to my life vest, gave my mask and snorkel a kiss, nibbled on my chest, and hugged my leg.  I only got nervous when one hooked its fins around my leg. I thought if it wants to take me underwater, I’m no match for a 1,200-pound mammal.  Especially when it replaces 90% of the air in its lungs (as compared to 10% for humans) and can remain submerged for 20 minutes.

Fortunately, these gentle giants, most closely related to elephants, just wanted to play.  It was such an amazing experience! I’m so thankful they hadn’t all left for the Gulf and favored saltwater yet. 

More About Manatees

They stay in Crystal River in the winter months because the springs are 72 degrees, much warmer than the Gulf from December to the beginning of April.  While they prefer saltwater, they cannot survive in cold water less than 68 degrees for more than four hours as they will die from hypothermia. 

Despite their appearance, they have very little body fat to keep them warm.  They keep up their energy and warmth by feeding more half the day while consuming 10% of their body in sea grass daily, resulting in them being the largest herbivore in the ocean.

Remarkably, the manatees despite having no natural predator, all still a threatened species due to boat strikes, limited sea grass, colder water temperatures, and poor water quality.  Do what you can to protect them, so one day you too can swim with the manatees!  And don’t forget to ask for Dakota and Jim as your crew for MORNING tour when the chances are better. We left earlier, returned later, and had a better interaction with the manatees than the other group! Also, Dakota is really good at taking photos. You’ll definitely want to pay the $30 for the manatee flash drive!

Swimming with the manatees in Crystal River was exhilarating, and definitely a highlight during my travels in Florida. And as much as I liked it, I should say there are more things to do in Crystal River. Stay tuned…ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

9 thoughts on “Crystal River: Swimming with the Manatees

  1. What an incredible experience!! I want to do this! We actually planned to go in Belize, but the water was so murky we wouldn’t have seen anything, but this spot looks amazing. Thanks for sharing this Beth, it’s now on my list. Maggie

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