By Heather Bossowski
Each winter, as the temperatures drop, manatees make a beeline for the warm waters of the many springs that flow through the Sunshine State. Pumping out a steady stream of 72-degree water year-round, they provide the perfect habitat for these gentle creatures to overwinter. Just 90 minutes north of Tampa lies a network of 70 springs that make up the Crystal River. Originating in Kings Bay and running out into the Gulf of Mexico, this stretch of water has been dubbed the “Manatee Capital of the World.” In fact, it is home to the only national wildlife refuge specifically created to protect Florida’s official marine mammal.
While manatee viewing is possible year-round, higher concentrations (up to 600 have been spotted in a single day) during the winter months lend to the perfect opportunity to get up close and personal with what is affectionately known as a “Florida potato.” November 15 through March 31 marks the official manatee season and Crystal River is the only place where you are allowed to swim with these magnificent creatures. The privilege does, however, come with a strict set of rules. Passive observation is the law of the land. In other words, initiating contact is strictly off limits. Touching, harassing, chasing, feeding or riding on a manatee comes with a hefty fine, as they are federally protected. These curious creatures generally don’t fear humans, and will often initiate contact with swimmers, boaters and kayakers, as we have been delighted to find out over the years. Sadly, this is also a huge cause of injuries to the manatees, as you will see many with propeller scars on them from injuries sustained by boaters that aren’t paying attention.
There are many ways to experience this “family bucket list” adventure on the Crystal River. From tour boats that will outfit you with wetsuits and snorkel gear and guarantee a manatee encounter, to clear kayak and paddleboard rentals, and county parks that have swimming areas alongside prime manatee swimming areas, the opportunities are endless. There are also several spots to launch your own vessel, as we did with our kayaks. Leaving from Hunter Springs Park early on a chilly October morning, we pushed off into the water. It immediately became clear why it’s called the Crystal River. The visibility is limitless, and we were delighted to encounter a pair of manatees just minutes into our journey. As we pulled our paddles out of the water and just floated alongside these awesome creatures, they glided underneath our kayak and hesitated a moment before heading upriver. It would only get better. The riverbank was laden with Cypress and Live Oak, and we even spotted a bald eagle. As we rounded a bend and went underneath a low bridge, we came upon an expansive cove that was seemingly bubbling with manatees. At least two dozen, including several small calves shadowing their mothers, were basking in the early morning sun. It was here we decided to drop anchor, and we took the plunge into the aqua water alongside the aggregation of manatees. For over an hour we floated alongside them as they ate, sunned and played. We even had some swim over, circling around and under us, as curious about us as we were them. We watched as one swam in spectacular fashion, doing loops under the water. Some ate sea grass, others did nothing at all, but all were spectacular to see. We probably could have stayed there all day, but the chill of the cool air and the water caught up to us. As we climbed back into our kayak we were grinning from ear to ear, processing what we had just experienced.
People flock to Florida to swim with manatees, and this experience is right in our own backyard. This winter, take the ride to Crystal River for the day and check another one off the family bucket list. You won’t regret it.