There is a cool breeze at 6 AM, as I prepare to board a boat to swim with the Florida West Indian Manatees. My guide, from The Birds Underwater Dive Center, assures me that the water will be warm enough to enjoy my swim in a wet-suit, even though the water sits between 68 and 74 degrees’ year around; the very temperature manatees require for survival.
The Crystal River and Kings Bay have the largest population of Manatees in the US, where up to 1,000 migrate each winter. Also known as sea cows, manatees are commonly referred to as Florida’s Gentle Giants. When the water cools in the Gulf of Mexico, wild manatees make their way along the seven-mile journey in the Crystal River into Kings Bay.
There I had the opportunity to snorkel and swim with these wild, but docile, animals. You can snorkel year-round with these creatures. However, the largest concentrations in the Bay occur during the winter months, when the Gulf of Mexico is too cold for them to survive.
Encountering the Crystal River Manatees
As the sun comes up over the Bay, a dolphin emerges from the water a few yards from our boat. I am told dolphins and manatees ignore each other, creating a harmonious environment for both to live. I get in the cold water after the boat captain spots some manatee swimming a few yards away from us. The water is not deep and the current is mild. Within a few minutes of being submerged in the water, a full-grown manatee swam directly underneath me. I was able to get a good look at the massive being.
Male resident manatees, like those found in Crystal River, can grow up to 3000 pounds, with females frequently reaching 2800, and often live to the age of 50. In the wild, they get more exercise and males only grow to 2000 pounds and 1500 for the girls. Currently, the vet from Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo has them on a diet in an effort to reduce their weight to around 2500 pounds.
It doesn’t notice me as it meanders along the bottom of the river in search of vegetation to eat. Even though the water in Kings Bay is brackish, and the manatees can blend into their environment, I saw them so close I could practically reach out and touch them.
There are buoys, which cordon off parts of Kings Bay as sanctuary areas for these Gentle Giants to eat and sleep without disturbance from swimmers and boats. It’s almost as if the cordoned off areas are their home and we are invited to visit with them on their front porch. They are curious beings and swim right up to snorkelers. The manatees hang out for a bit, and then move along further into the bay.
Like the dolphins, they must come to the surface for air at least every 20 minutes, making them easy to spot in the water.
Manatees can swim quite fast for short distances reaching up to 20 miles per hour, competing with the speed of dolphins, which also frequent the area. Typically, though, they travel at a more leisurely pace of 3 to 5 miles per hour.
Other Ways to Experience the Florida Manatees
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
As much as I enjoyed swimming with the manatees in Kings Bay, the best views (and photographs) came from the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. There they rehabilitate and care for Sea Cows injured from boat collisions, along with a host of other animals. Most of the wildlife at the refuge, including the manatees, cannot be released back into the wild due to their injuries.
At the park, a worker fed the guests of honor. I viewed them from a bridge directly over the feeding area. I was amazed that they could be so large, and yet swim comfortably in very shallow waters, only waist deep. The refuge also features an underwater observatory. From the observatory I watched the manatees in their natural habitat within a glass enclosure.
Three Sister Springs
Three Sister Springs, also in the town of Crystal River, Florida, just a few miles north of Homosassa, offers the clearest water for viewing and swimming with manatees. There were none in the Springs during my visit. But Barb Kramer, a retired volunteer, described how up to 600 manatees could swim in the clear spring water of Three Sisters during the height of the season.
You can boat or kayak to the springs, and swim with the manatees. Or observe them from a boardwalk, just a few feet from the water. The recent restoration in 2016 built up the rock edges and restored the limestone bottom, keeping the water crystal clear.
Where is Crystal River Florida?
Crystal river is located about 90 miles by car from Orlando or 300 miles by car from Miami. You should allow 2:30 hours from the Orlando area resorts each direction assuming light to moderate traffic.
Due to conservation efforts, the Florida Manatee was recently removed from the endangered species list and upgraded to threatened. There are now over 6,000 West Indian Manatees, most living in the Gulf of Mexico, and frequenting the waters in and around Crystal River, Florida. Citrus County is the only place in the United States where you can legally swim with and passively interact with these Gentle Giants in their natural habitat.
All Photos courtesy of Discover Crystal River Florida