A dwindling number of regions in fast-growing Florida have the vast open stretches of pasture, forest, prairie and swamp of Okeechobee in the Sunshine State’s heartland. Though dedicated mostly …
Crystal River: No Place Like It in the World
If you have spent any time in Florida, you probably have encountered a manatee– a huge, gentle, lumbering marine mammal related to the elephant. No doubt you’ve been approached as you paddled your kayak in a bay or canal, or have seen the endangered sea cow passing by a dock, marina, or pier. But you will never see as many manatees gathered in one place at one time as in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
As many as 600 of these giant creatures that can grow up to ten feet long and weigh more than 1,200 pounds congregate around the 70 warm-water springs in Crystal River’s Kings Bay between November and late March each year. It’s sort of a spa for the animals who come there when water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico get too cold. They basically loll around, resting and relaxing in the 72-degree springs until the weather warms up, then head back out to the Gulf to resume feeding on sea grasses. And you can visit with them pretty much anytime you like — snorkeling in the springs; paddling a kayak or stand-up paddleboard; or observing from a boardwalk.
There is no place like this anywhere in the world where regular people can interact with so many members of an endangered species in their natural habitat. I’ve been travelling here nearly every year since the mid 1990s– usually in January–and I’ve never failed to meet a manatee up close.
But this has been an unusual winter season in northwest Florida; January has been way warmer than usual, so the manatees haven’t shown up in Crystal River in big numbers as of this posting. There are, however, some early arrivals that I met during a snorkeling trip with Crystal Lodge Dive Center on Jan. 21.
I shared the boat with two ladies from Cape Cod, Mass. and we encountered a manatee only minutes after entering the water. Instead of lazing around, this one was actively feeding on sea grass on the bottom of a residential canal. One of the ladies gleefully reported that a manatee stuck its face up to her mask, but I don’t know if it was the same one I saw.
Our boat captain relocated to a spot just outside Three Sisters Springs– a clear, scenic pool less than an acre in size fed by numerous mini-geyser-like boils where manatees literally pile up during the coldest days of winter. Part of Three Sisters is closed to snorkeling to prevent disturbance to resting manatees, but I spied a sea cow exiting its lounging area after waking from its nap.
Visitors must mind their manatee manners throughout the refuge and in Three Sisters in particular. These waters are closely monitored by staffers and volunteers with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who won’t hesitate to call you out or issue a citation if they observe you trying to ride or molest a manatee. Fines and even jail time can be levied against violators. From time to time, officials have closed Three Sisters to all human entry if they perceive too much interference with manatees. Last year FWS proposed other restrictions in the tiny spring, but those have not yet been implemented.
Despite Crystal River’s recent unseasonable warmth, the weather is expected to grow cooler as more frigid fronts approach from the northwest and create ideal conditions for observing Florida’s beloved manatee.
For lodging, book the Best Western Crystal River Resort at www.crystalriverresort.com and book your manatee adventure with Crystal Lodge Dive Center at www.manatee-central.com. For more information about the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, go to www.fws.gov/refuge/crystalriver/.