In the winter, when waters throughout the state turn chilly, manatees converge on the waters in and around the Crystal River. Thanks to nearby springs the water is a constant comfortable temperature, and the clear water makes it a favorite spot for humans who want to observe the giant aquatic mammals.
There are several local companies that provide manatee-watching excursions; Crystal River Manatee Tour and Dive (267 NW 3rd St., 888/732-2692, www.manateetourusa.com, boat tours from $25, snorkeling tours from $40) helps you either to commune with the gentle giants from the top of the water or by snorkeling alongside them. They conduct tours year-round (some companies only provide services during the winter), and also offer rentals of canoes and kayaks.
Those rental watercraft will come in handy: While a guided excursion can be illuminating, one of the best ways to enjoy the Crystal River is on your own, and several of the best spots are only accessible by boat.
Covering most of King’s Bay, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (1502 SE Kings Bay Dr., 352/563-2088, www.fws.gov/crystalriver) is one such area. Once inside the 46-acre refuge, you’ll be in one of the best places on earth to watch manatees go about their business. Between November and March, several areas are designated as no-entry zones, which means no boating, no diving, no swimming, no fishing…no entry. This allows the manatees to eat and mate in peace for at least part of the year, but during that time the area is so flush with sea cows you’d be hard-pressed to not find one in other parts of the wildlife refuge.
The Three Sisters Springs is a complex of three bright-blue springs near the wildlife refuge, although all the surrounding land is privately owned; the best place to put in a boat is at Hunters Spring Park (end of NE 1st Ave.). Although this is a popular public swimming area, the water is polluted, causing frequent water safety warnings to be posted. From Hunters Spring, you’re about 30 minutes’ paddle from Three Sisters. The entryway to the springs is blocked by concrete pillars that prevent boats from going in, so you’ll need to take a canoe or kayak to that point and then swim in. Even if there are no manatees around, the setting is gorgeous, and the snorkeling is outstanding.
Canoes and kayaks can be rented from Manatee Tour & Dive (4 NE 5th St., Crystal River, 352/795-1333, from $25 per half day). Sunshine River Tours (5297 S. Cherokee Way, Homosassa, 352/628-3450, tours from $50 per person) offers excellent boat tours of the manatee-filled waterways.
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition