So, you wanna see a manatee. Not one of those in a tank at Epcot Center or even in the semi-natural surroundings of Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, but a real, live, in-the-wild, 1,000-pound hunk of peaceful herbivore.
Well, Kings Bay is probably the best place to do it. Every winter, about 200 manatees migrate to the bay in search of the warmth of the 68-degree natural spring waters. The congregation of manatees provides a rare opportunity for a person to snorkel with the endangered creatures.
For novices, the best bet may be a guided tour from a Crystal River dive shop. The guides know where to find manatees and how to approach them without scaring them away. The other alternative is to use your own boat or rent one from a marina.
Guided snorkeling or scuba tours last two to three hours and cost $15 to $20 per person. If you don't have snorkeling gear, it will cost another $15 to $20 to rent a wet suit, mask, snorkel and fins.
For those who don't want to get in the water, the Plantation Inn Marina will take people out for one hour to see manatees from the boat, for $7.50 per person. For those in the water, Plantation guides will make a 20-minute video of your encounter with manatees for an additional $20 charge.
Weekdays are preferable because Kings Bay can become jammed with boaters and snorkelers on the weekend. Keep in mind, though, that some dive shops require three or four people for a guided tour, unless you're willing to pay the difference out of your pocket.
If you're snorkeling alone, it may be easier to find a group to join on the weekend.
Snorkeling is the best way to swim with the manatees because the bubbles and noise of scuba gear can scare manatees away. But certified scuba divers may want to explore the depths of the Kings Spring, the main spring feeding Kings Bay. Rental of a wet suit and scuba equipment costs about $35.
Boat rentals start at about $25 for a half-day rental of a 16-foot john boat that can hold up to five people.
You will need a dive flag if you're snorkeling or diving and you must stay within a 100 feet of the flag.
The first factor to consider when planning to swim with the manatees is the weather: the colder the better. The colder the water is, the more the manatees will gather in the springs. Once it warms up, they start meandering down the Crystal River in search of food.
The manatee season is from November through March, with the best months being December, January and February. That doesn't mean manatees won't be seen in other months.
Although most migrate to the Gulf of Mexico for the summer, some stay in Kings Bay year-round. But don't count on seeing a manatee if you go in warmer weather.
The morning is the best time to see manatees. As it gets warmer, the manatees start swimming farther afield in search of food. Also, the water tends to be clearer in the morning, before manatees and humans start stirring up sediment.
When you spot a manatee, dive shop owner Glenn Talley advises shutting off your motor and gliding in as quietly as possible. Then, one snorkeler should slip over the side and move slowly and quietly toward the manatee. Once it's seen, the first snorkeler should hand-signal others to join him, and maintain silence.
"Try not to even talk to each other when you're out there," Talley said. "Just watch them. Stay still. That gives the manatee time to check you out and if they think they can trust you, they will kind of slowly move over to your area."
Manatees have different personalities. Some are friendly and will nuzzle up to even the noisiest snorkelers. Others will swim away. But a manatee is less likely to hang around if you splash into the water, swim aggressively toward it and reach out your hand to try to touch it.
"You don't run up to a fellow human being and grab one, especially a strange one," Talley said. "And the same thing with an animal, the same with a manatee: You want to give them their space and let the introduction between you and him be gradual and built on trust."
It helps to have someone stay in the boat to keep an eye on the manatees. Once you're in the water, it's hard to keep track of them if they swim off.
Finally, bring some warm clothes for the ride back. While you're in the water, you only need a bathing suit under your wet suit. But once you get out, the air will feel chilly and you may want to change before you head in for lunch.