Every year, tourists from around the world flock to Crystal River. A brief drive through the charming Citrus County hamlet provides a hint as to why: You’ll find manatee-shaped mailboxes, manatee placards on the streetlights, manatee statues and murals. The city’s logo, a smiling sea cow, is festooned upon a water tower downtown.
Crystal River, home to roughly 3,000 people and located 90 minutes north of Tampa, is the only place in North America where you can legally swim with manatees. For Tampa Bay residents looking for a magical getaway, this one-tank destination is the perfect place to get up close with these gentle creatures.
Manatee season runs from Nov. 15 through the end of March, when cold temperatures push the mammals into Crystal River’s mild waters. The springs around Kings Bay remain at 72 degrees year-round, and in the peak months it’s not uncommon to see hundreds of manatees clustering together to enjoy the warmth.
Even though we booked a trip during the off-season, we were optimistic about spotting some manatees. Crystal River is home to roughly 50 to 60 resident manatees, attracting travelers year-round. In fact, visiting before the season is a great way to get close to these creatures while avoiding the crowds.
To book responsibly, find a tour group that takes a conservation-minded approach. Photographer Martha Asencio-Rhine and I opted for Explorida, a company that starts each swim session with a lesson. After all, these animals are protected by federal law, and harassing or harming them can mean hefty fines and jail time. The team went over the art of “passive observation,” which involves quietly enjoying the animals from a distance. If manatees wanted to venture closer and touch us, that would be fine, but initiating contact is a big no-no.
We wiggled into wet suits, which would keep us warm and floating, and headed to Kings Bay, aka the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. During the short boat ride, our in-water guide, Amy Smith, offered tips.
Manatees will be able to feel us coming thanks to tiny hairs that cover their body. They are curious and friendly, and generally don’t mind respectful humans. To keep them comfortable, it’s best to avoid loud noises or splashing. In other words, stay still and act like a manatee.
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“I call it manatee meditation,” Smith said. “So if you’re not relaxed and calm when you get out of the water, you’re probably not doing it right.”
Smith showed us how to spot manatees from the boat. First, find a mound of bubbles. Then a whiskered nose will emerge from the water — the tip of the manatee iceberg. If the water is clear, you’ll see the round silhouette of the rest of its body under the surface.
Our tour group of 10 squeezed into snorkeling masks and shimmied into the water. Even though the bay was shallow enough to stand in, the captain handed us each a pool noodle to wedge under our armpits. It’s important to float, so as to not kick up sand from the bottom or sink down onto an unsuspecting manatee.
Our feet poking up out of the water behind us, we doggy-paddled gingerly away from the boat and toward Smith. She had found our first manatee, a female taking a snooze.
At first, it was hard to see her through the water. Her long, flat tail had kicked up sand from the bottom, and it was challenging to get close enough to see while also giving her space. Having to navigate around others in our tour group made things even trickier, especially since we were instructed to remain silent.
The sleeping sea cow hovered in a cloud of bubbles. Every few minutes she floated to the surface to inhale before sinking back down. Small catfish swirled around her. She didn’t mind them, or our group coming close to watch.
Smith motioned to us to hold onto our noodles, then “freeze and float.” We watched through our snorkel masks in awe.
Then another tour group approached. We’d have to share this manatee. Our gang headed back to the boat to find another one.
We didn’t travel for long before the captain spotted a second sea cow. Smith slid into the water to scope him out. We followed behind.
Smith identified the animal as a male. (Females are typically larger.) This fellow was hungry, nuzzling the bottom of the bay for a snack. His little front flippers scooped clumps of eelgrass toward his mouth as he swam. We could hear his crunches through the water.
Manatees eat between 10 and 15 percent of their body weight daily. With the average manatee weighing around 1,500 pounds, Smith said, be glad that’s not your grocery bill.
We repeated this process until just before 12:30 p.m. Find a manatee and get a peek into its morning routine. Near the edge of the water, as the group admired a mother, her calf even popped in to say hello.
With our last manatee, it was hard to keep a good distance as he quickly scanned for lunch. He moved closer to us, and I didn’t want to cause a splash by swimming away.
We froze. We floated.
The manatee swam on.
Where to stay
For the best visibility, book a tour as early in the morning as you can. Explorida, for example, offers a 6:30 a.m. slot. Call 352-503-4034 or visit explorida.com to book.
Staying near the springs is a must. We opted for the Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed and Breakfast, which sits on the edge of Kings Bay. Each room has a theme, from mermaids to seahorses. A fully stocked kitchen provides the fixings for a do-it-yourself breakfast: fresh fruit, juices, pastries and a coffee bar. Borrow kayaks or water bikes for a trip to nearby Three Sisters Springs, or settle in with complimentary wine and s’mores by the fire pit. 244 NE Second Court, Crystal River. crystalbluelagoonbb.com.
We also recommend the Plantation on Crystal River. This historic hotel, which dates back to 1962, is tucked along Kings Bay. Amenities include a full spa, three on-site eateries, a lagoon-style pool and an 18-hole golf course. The hotel also has its own adventure center, offering chartered scalloping trips, dive equipment rentals and, of course, manatee tours. 9301 W Fort Island Trail, Crystal River. plantationoncrystalriver.com.