MANATEE SNORKEL TOUR (!!!)
With more than 70 springs and a constant water temperature of 72 degrees, Kings Bay in Crystal River, Fla. is the largest winter refuge for manatees on Florida's Gulf Coast and home to more than 400 of these gentle giants, November through March.
Located in Citrus County, about 60 miles north of my hometown of Tampa, Crystal River is the epicenter of manatee-watching. And while I had been there many times, I had never taken a snorkel tour, which was at the top of our list during mine and Adam's recent trip to Florida.
We woke up before sunrise and headed to Crystal River for our 7:15 AM manatee snorkel encounter with River Ventures. Their 3-hour tour is offered year round and includes: a mask, snorkel, and wet suit, in addition to an awesome captain, tour guide and photographer extraordinaire. The morning started with a lesson on the rules and laws in place to protect the manatees. Swimming with them is permitted, but visitors are cautioned to be respectful and to practice passive observation.
Huddled on aluminum benches our group of eight headed out into Kings Bay with our wet suits on and eyes peeled for the little grey nose of a surfacing manatee. In the summer, manatees leave the Bay and can be difficult to find. Lucky for us, John, our captain, knew just where to look!
Captain John instructed us to ease ourselves into the water as quickly and quietly as possible, avoiding any splash or noise that might spook the manatee or stir up silt from the bottom, obscuring the view.
I'm a huge animal lover, but I particularly love manatees (and cats and pandas). Buzzfeed agrees, manatees are the best! Sometimes called “sea cows” because of their appetite for aquatic plants, the West Indian manatee has no natural predators and can grow to 13 feet and over 3,000 pounds.
To say I was excited to swim with a manatee would be an understatement. However, as our group approached the manatee I was in awe of how enormous they really are, and a little scared—even though Captain John had told us they are gentle giants, calm and approachable.
Our small group spent the next 30 minutes floating alongside our new (very large) friend as it made its way to the surface every few minutes to breath. It was truly a surreal experience to be underwater and at arms lengths from an animal this large, so peaceful and trusting.
Stand up Paddle Board — Three Sister's Springs
After a morning of snorkeling, we headed to Manatee Paddle to pick up our paddle boards for a two-hour rental around King's Bay. The staff at Manatee Paddle were fantastic, helping us load the boards into the water an directing us to some of their favorite spots. Adam and I had recently taken an intro to stand up paddle boarding lesson at the Key Bridge Boathouse in D.C., and were able to hop right on with no problem. It's an awesome way to be out on the water—and as we quickly found out, the perfect vantage point for more manatee (and dolphin) sightings!
We headed straight for Three Sisters Springs, a true natural wonder. The spring is a complex of three areas, with vents, and sand boils that help feed Kings Bay—only snorkelers, canoes, and kayaks are permitted to enter. We spent most of our time enjoying the cool water and the areas incredible beauty before heading back. It was a fun day in Crystal River!