“It’s coming straight for you! Don’t move!” the captain of our little tour boat called. Face-down in the water & shivering hard despite my wet-suit & snorkel gear, I froze in the “sea-star” float position. With slow, majestic grace, a 1,000 pound manatee glided inches underneath me, close enough that I could see each whisker on its ever-so-cute snout and trace every patch of algae on its comically rotund body. This was way better than shaking hands with an oversized mouse dressed in bloated white gloves! Located about 2 hours northeast of Orlando, Florida, Crystal River is home to about 400 manatees that migrate each winter from the cold Gulf waters to the relatively stable 72 degrees of the freshwater springs of Kings Bay. A few of these placid vegetarians remain in the bay all year, offering humans a year-long opportunity to view them in their natural habitat. A plethora of businesses in Crystal River offer paddle-boarding, kayaking, snorkeling, & boating tours to view the manatees, and local bed-&-breakfasts abound. Rather than join the Spring Break/Easter holiday crush of Disney World (an estimated 2.9 million visitors for spring 2018), we instead drove from Orlando to Crystal River for an unforgettable manatee-swim. We broke up the 120 minute drive by stopping en-route at Cooter Pond in Inverness, adjacent to Hwy 41. Apparently, the pond’s water-weeds shroud several sunken railroad cars, derailed in 1930. According to Albert Johnson of Inverness, quoted in an Ocala Star-Banner article, his grandfather saw a flat car and several box cars derail.
Loaded with canned hams and women’s apparel, “many town residents lined the banks and dove in”, hoping to salvage the items, but a large alligator scared them off. Was it the same alligator we saw from the boardwalk while we were stretching our legs?
A short drive after Cooter Pond, we arrived for our manatee-swimming tour at 1:30pm, at Fun 2 Dive , an eco-conscious tour-group that stresses that Crystal River is not an amusement park, that the manatees are here as a survival tactic, and that it is essential that we adhere to rules to limit disturbing them (such as freezing in place when they approach swimmers, and not chasing or touching them).
During the 3hr tour, we saw dozens of manatees, both while we were in the water & on the boat, and we were immensely pleased with the experience. Our Captain regaled us with fascinating facts about the manatees & amusing stories about manatee-human interactions, such as stories about “Charlie”, a rather amorous male manatee, or the baby manatee that was prone to hugging & snuggling swimmers one year.
Our Captain even provided a multitude of snacks & hot chocolate after our snorkel experience–which proved necessary, despite the sunshine, as there wasn’t a single one of us who wasn’t shivering hard after the swim!
- Go early in the day!
Even if it means getting up at the crack of dawn to drive the distance from Orlando, the earlier the tour you’re on, the less traffic on the river. The waterways were packed with manatee-viewers by 1:30pm, and despite the quiet natural beauty of Three Sisters Springs and the sober presence of Rangers in kayaks monitoring the human activity, there was a lot of nonsense going on (tour boats blaring music as drunk tourists chugged beers, folks stomping through the water & stirring up silt instead of swimming, & even one tourist in a kayak impulsively cannon-balling into the water, just feet away from a roped off “manatee sanctuary quiet zone”).
- Bring a towel & coat on the boat with you for afterwards! It’s cold after the swim!
Crystal River Airport – CGC (Captain Tom Davis Field) is located 3 miles southeast of Crystal River, and, according to the Airport Courtesy Car app, a courtesy car is available for visiting pilots.