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Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida

The state of Florida is well known for its many tourist attractions.

The coasts have beautiful beaches, shopping, and nightlife and Central Florida has theme parks. I have experienced most of these so on this trip I was looking for an off-the-beaten-track area and experience. I found it in Crystal River. Located about an hour north of Tampa, and about 5 miles inland, Crystal River is the self-proclaimed Manatee Capital of the world. As it happens, this is the only area in Florida where it is legal to swim and interact with manatees. Each winter from November through March, well over 1,000 manatees migrate to the King Bay area of Crystal River to spend the cooler months in the warm spring waters. Here they are under federal protection, however with proper instruction and supervision, it is possible to get up close and personal with these fascinating creatures.

 

Manatees are warm blooded, herbivore mammals that pose no threat to humans. They are the gentle giants of the Florida waterways, but are unfortunately at risk from boating activity. It is very rare to see a manatee whose back is not crisscrossed with scars from encounters with boat propellers. However, in the right environment, they are friendly, playful creatures that enjoy human interaction. 

 

Our first opportunity to see the manatees came by land at the Three Sisters Springs. These natural warm springs are connected to the Crystal River by a small channel through which the manatees (and swimmers) enter. Once inside the springs, the manatees rest and can be viewed from the surrounding boardwalk, or by entering the water with them. Swimmers are allowed to interact with them, but there are strict rules in place to protect the manatees. The primary rules are passive observation, and allowing the manatees to initiate any interaction. In the Three Sisters Springs, underwater ropes indicate the areas that are off limits to swimmers, allowing the manatees to sleep uninterrupted. While the Three Sisters Springs’ clear water provided the best opportunity to observe larger concentrations of manatees, we found the best opportunity to interact with them was in murkier waters of the river itself.

 

Our chance to swim with the manatees came the following day. The Plantation at Crystal River has a marina from which they lead these, and other types of tours. We set off on a warm winter morning as the mist was rising off the river. Once on the pontoon boat we were supplied with a mask, snorkel and wet suit, all necessary in the 73 degree water. Our first stop was the Three Sisters Springs where we were able to observe the manatees, but did not have any interaction. We then moved to an area out in the main river. Shortly after entering the water, several manatees, including a mother and baby, approached us. Staying as still as possible to avoid scaring them, we were amazed at how curious they were. We had the opportunity to pet them and literally come face to face with them as they playfully circled us and nibbled at our wet suit leashes. After about 10 minutes, they vanished into the murky water. Unlike other places where you can swim with dolphins in a man made pool or lagoon and your time is carefully choreographed, here it was the animals that initiated contact while in their natural environment. It was a truly unique and memorable experience.

 

Plantation on Crystal River Resort
While in Crystal River we stayed at the Plantation on Crystal River (www.plantationoncrystalriver.com). Designed to look like a southern plantation, this resort offers a selection of 196 rooms, all with either garden or river views. It also offers accommodations in villas on their golf course. The Plantation Adventure Center at the marina offers a wide array of aquatic tour options as well as power boat rentals. There is an 18-hole golf course as well as a 9-hole executive course. Other resort amenities include a lagoon style pool, driving range, hot tub, fitness center, tennis, pickle-ball, sand volleyball, and much more. 

 

Additional Area Activities
While the manatees are the principal attraction here, there are many other land and water activity options. A short drive to Homosassa where we took a ride on an airboat down the Homosassa River and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Our guide wound his way through the labyrinth of marshy waterways, past numerous fishing camps, and out into the Gulf. During the summer here it is scallop season, and tourists can wade through the sea grass beds and collect scallops for a tasty shore dinner. 

 

Another fun activity in Crystal River is Crystal River Segway Tours. The owner, Capt. Broderick, took us on a two hour ride through the back roads of Crystal River which was fun and informative. We visited the local parks, the piers, and saw local wildlife, including more manatees. Tours leave from the Kings Bay Plaza where, after a short training and safety lecture, we were off. They have several tour options of varying times and lengths. Visit www.crystalriversegwaytours.com

 

A Man’s Gotta Eat
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing meals we had, both at the Plantation on Crystal River and also Katch Twenty Two. At the Plantation, West 82∫ Bar & Grill, overlooking Kings Bay and Crystal River, serves fresh breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, made with the finest natural local ingredients. Katch Twenty Two is owned by Chef Richard who spent 20 years as an Executive Chef with Hyatt and Westin Resorts. It features locally sourced seafood, as well as some of his favorite and most raved about dishes from his extensive 20-year hospitality career. A thoughtfully crafted beer and wine list completes the experience. The seafood risotto was to die for. I highly recommend this restaurant for any clients visiting the region. www.katchtwentytwo.com

 

For more information on Crystal River and all it has to offer your clients, visit: www.discovercrystalriverfl.com

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