Manatees! Those cute and cuddly aquatic gray blobs that are so homely they're adorable, are also a "threatened" species.
And yet, it's legal to immerse yourself in their habitat - literally - and swim with them. Though they're slow-moving, they are much faster than we are in the water, so actually "swimming" with them is wishful thinking on our part. But what you can do is get in the water and passively observe them do whatever manatees do. The Florida manatees, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, live primarily in Florida and southeastern Georgia in freshwater, brackish, and saltwater habitats. The West Indian manatee is also found in the Caribbean and parts of Central America. One of the most scenic places to see them in Florida are the beautiful clear waters around the town of Crystal River in Citrus County, about an hour north of Tampa on Florida's gulf coast.
When done right - and responsibly - it's possible to enjoy these animals in their natural environment through a tour with an experienced and knowledgable guide. I recently had a chance to visit Crystal River and swim with manatees with Captains Stacy and Mike Dunn of Manatees in Paradise. Their tour reflects the love they have for the health and well-being of manatees, and their passion for sharing that important knowledge.
Check out my favorite images of these real-life mermaids!
8:00am - First stop: Kings Bay
It was 46 degrees out the December morning we headed for Kings Bay and the water was smooth as glass. But with a 5mm wetsuit, it felt toasty warm. Even barefoot. We did not wear fins to further protect the animals and their environment.
The water was dark when we first got in, but soon paled to a murky aqua blue as the sun rose overhead.
This was my first look at a manatee underwater. As Captain Mike yelled for me to turn around, the manatee swam past me and all I saw was a moving mass of gray - a giant rock-colored submarine swimming past.
But more came around. This juvenile was really curious and went from diver to diver checking us out face to face.
As this group of three swam past me, the baby in the middle suddenly pivoted around to stare right at me!
10:30am - Second Stop, Kings Bay Bridge
The inlet near Kings Bay Bridge, lined with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, leads to Three Sisters Springs. This area near the bridge was by far the most active, with a dozen or so manatees swimming around.
They were playful, chasing each other around and twirling among us. They also loved chewing on the boat lines!
Captain Stacy kept a watchful eye from the boat and called out when manatees were around us.
At one point, when it was time to leave, there were so many manatees around the ladder, it was tough to get out of the water.
11:30am - Last Stop, Three Sisters Springs
The tranquil Three Sisters Springs is not a park, but a National Wildlife Refuge - a safe haven for the manatees escaping the cold of winter - and is the only spring in the city of Crystal River accessible by land.
The boardwalk surrounding the springs is great for viewing the scenic springs and wildlife, and is easily reached by the Three Sisters Springs trolley which runs from mid-November through March, every half hour, from the Citrus County Welcome Center.
There were few manatees in Three Sisters Springs that afternoon since the river temperature was still pretty warm, but schools of snapper were everywhere.
We caught the strong current created by the springs and like a downhill run, let it carry us all the way out and back to the waiting dive boat.
No boats are allowed in Three Sisters Springs. Large steel columns guard the only water entrance so only manatees, swimmers, snorkelers, and paddlers can access the narrow openings.
Divers are discouraged from wearing fins as it churns up silt and sand and contributes to further erosion of the land around the springs.
Thanks to VisitCitrus for sponsoring our tour and allowing us to discover an amazing part of Old Florida. As always, all opinions are completely my own based on my actual experience.
If You Go
The best time of year to see manatees in the water is December through March. Book an educational eco-tour, or rent a kayak and paddle into the springs.
Manatees in Paradise - 1223 N. Circle Drive, Crystal River, FL. Educational and scenic small group manatee tours with Captains Mike and Stacy Dunn.
Crystal River Watersports - 2380 NW US Hwy 19 (N Suncoast Blvd) Crystal River, FL. Small group manatee tours, sunset cruises, dive trips, and scuba certification.
Crystal River Kayak Company - 1422 SE Hwy 19, Building B, Crystal River, FL. Kayak rentals and guided kayak tours and canoe trips. Located a very short paddle from Three Sisters Springs.
For More Information
Visit Citrus County & Citrus County Visitor Center - 915 N. Suncoast Blvd, Crystal River, FL
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - 1502 S.E. Kings Bay Drive, Crystal River, FL
Three Sisters Springs Trolley - Operated by The City of Crystal River, trolleys run daily November 15 - March 31, every 30-40 minutes from the Citrus County Visitors Ctr.
$15 (Adult) $5.00 (Child) - All-day entrance pass and unlimited trolley rides between Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge and historic downtown Crystal River.