Manatee photo by Miles Saunders, Discover Crystal River
There is only one place in Florida where you can legally get in the water and swim with manatees. That place is Crystal River, on the Gulf coast, north of Tampa Bay. More specifically Three Sister’s Springs at King’s Bay. They come to the springs every winter to seek out the relatively warm water. Manatees can’t survive long in water under 70 degrees. The springs stay at 72-73 degrees year-round.
The peak season for manatees at the springs is November to March. It is estimated by the state wildlife office that around 900 manatees make their way to the springs each year. That number has been slowly going up in recent years.
Manatees were taken off the endangered species list in 2017, but are still considered “threatened”. They are protected by state and federal regulations. Their populations in Florida have been increasing, now about 6,000, but their death rate has been going up too.
Most deaths are from run-ins with boats and boat propellers. Some die of exposure in cold water. But most alarmingly in some areas of Florida they are dying of starvation. The sea grass that is their primary source of food has disappeared in some places due to polluted water. The most severe impact is in my home area of Brevard County, Florida, and the Indian River Lagoon.
I was thrilled to get invited to join Captain Mike’s Manatee Tours for an upclose experience with the manatees. Boat captain Bill Ruiz and dive guide Liz Van Fleet took us to Three Sisters for the dive. The weather was warm for early March, and only a handful of manatees were in the springs. Most were out in King’s Bay, where sea grass is more plentiful. Normally there would be hundreds of manatees in the springs when the weather is cold.
While the spring water is warm to a one thousand pound manatee, it’s cold for humans. If you’re going to be in the water for any prolonged period of time you need a wet suit, which are provided by Captain Mike’s. Liz also provided a pool noodle to help with flotation. I had my own mask and snorkle, but it would have been nice to have a pair of flippers. That’s on my list of things to get before my next trip to the springs. And there will be a next trip when the weather gets cold next winter.
You aren’t allowed to touch or approach the mantees, but they are often curious and will approach you. One swam right underneath us, only a few feet away. We gawked and took pictures. It basically ignored us.
Manatees are big business in Crystal River. One store owner told me “it’s manatees and retirees” that keep the town alive. Everywhere you look in town you see kayaks. There are a number of outfitters that take paddlers on tours of Kings Bay, and everyone is looking for the manatees.
Crystal River is a small town on U.S. 19, about 2 hours north of Tampa Bay, in Citrus County. The manatees have been coming here for a millennium, long before humans came to the area. Now they are the backbone of the local economy.
While you’re in town, try the fine dining at the Vintage on 5th. Steaks and seafood are the specialties. If you order scallops they probably came right out of the Kings Bay waters that same day. The food is excellent. The wine list is extensive.
I’m grateful for assistance on this story provided by Discover Crystal River and Miles Saunders. For more information go to the visitor’s bureau website. It can connect you with everything you need to make your trip to the manatees fun and successful.