It was still early on this day in February, mist covered the water of Kings Bay and on the horizon, the sky slowly began to turn orange. It was unusually cold for Florida this morning, but tiredness and cold were quickly forgotten in view of the upcoming adventure. Silently we glazed onto the water as the boat of Captain Mike’s chugged out into the bay. After just a few minutes we already reached the destination, and even before the sun had risen completely, we were sliding into the dark, cool water of Kings Bay.
Crystal River is not the only place in the state of Florida dedicated to the West Indian manatee, but it’s the only place where you’re allowed to swim with manatees legally and under supervision. Although, swimming here actually means floating as motionless as possible on the water surface to observe the manatees in their natural habitat. Because manatees are not very stress-resistant animals and we as humans are visiting their home, there are some rules and regulations to follow when it comes to interacting with wild manatees.
First of all, manatees come to the warm waters of Kings Bay literally to survive. Despite their body size and shape, manatees only have a relatively thin layer of fat and must stay in warm waters to avoid cold stress. So every winter they migrate from the coastal waters to Florida’s natural springs to keep warm. Therefore it is extremely important for us humans to be as passive as possible in their presence in order not to stress the animals any further. This means in particular no approaching, following, touching, or disturbing manatees while you are in the water. Even if manatees themselves sometimes do not care about these rules, we should.
My first view through the diving mask showed nothing but gloomy darkness. The water was anything but crystal clear and the absence of sunlight this early in the morning caused very poor visibility. Therefore the dark silhouette which suddenly appeared in the green murky water gave us, understandably, a good scare. It wasn’t until we had swum about two meters (six feet) away from it, that we realized the silhouette was a manatee, dedicating itself to the green algae vegetation of a buoy.
With increasing sunlight, the visibility underwater improved progressively and we discovered more and more manatees. In the meantime, two other boats with snorkelers had arrived at the bay and now numerous colorful swimming noodles and snorkels were sticking out of the water around us. Nevertheless, it still wasn’t overcrowded, and the guides of the respective groups made sure that all guests followed the rules. The no touching rule however was something the locals did not really limit themselves to, as I could witness myself in two manatees adhering to one of the guides next to me.
I hardly had time to process what I just saw, when I noticed that I also had a manatee stuck to my wetsuit. Although I managed to be as quiet and motionless as possible while the manatee was inspecting me, I totally lost it as its snout tickled my neck and face and I laughed in full fervor into my snorkel. After a few minutes it was done with me and I could watch the whole thing happening to my buddy. She also got a full-body inspection before the manatee lost interest and went back to its fellow specimen.
Adult West Indian manatees can grow up to 3 meters (10 feet) and weigh between 200 and 600kg (440 to 1200 pounds). Therefore it is not surprising that during this very close encounter we had to remind ourselves, that these animals are obviously very curious but absolutely peaceful.
I can’t exactly say how much time we spent in the water, but eventually, the cold crawled through my wetsuit and forced me to return to the boat. Captain Mike’s boat luckily is equipped with an enclosed cabin (also including a toilet), making it much easier to change after the snorkeling adventure. I highly recommend bringing warm clothes to change into, because even if the water here has a temperature of 22 degrees (72 °F), your body will cool down significantly while staying in the water for that long. Happy and warm again, and with a cup of hot cocoa in my hands, I looked out onto the water and let the experiences I just had sink in.
The tour we took was the Silver Tour at Captain Mike’s Swimming with the Manatees, which included the swimming equipment (wetsuit, mask, snorkel, and swim noodle), an introduction to the rules and regulations for swimming with manatees, the transfer to and from the marina, and an accompanied 3-hour stay in Kings Bay. Although it was in the middle of the manatee peak season, only one other snorkeler and two manatee observers were on board that morning. Captain’ Mikes offers two tours daily, one at 7 am and one at 10 am, but I would recommend the earlier one since there are fewer humans and more manatees to meet in the bay. Another advantage is that you still have the whole day remaining for more manatee adventures in Crystal River.
After we got rid of the green King’s Bay sludge on our faces and hair, we were in desperate need of some solid breakfast before starting any further activities. We headed over to Sara’s Diner, a classic American diner with southern specialties like grits and green tomatoes on the menu. Although very tempted we ordered the typical American breakfast triple: eggs, bacon, and pancakes. Sated and revitalized we left the establishment and made our way to the Three Sister Springs Visitor Center.
The Three Sister Springs are three connected natural springs in Crystal River, which provide a warm winter refuge for hundreds of manatees during the cold months. The site is now part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and is only accessible by foot, bike, or the Three Sister Springs Trolley. There are a few parking spots on-site, but they’re reserved exclusively for vehicles with valid handicap parking permits. The boardwalk built around the springs has several viewing platforms from which you can observe the numerous manatees that were hanging out in the springs. I was stoked by the sheer number of manatees in one place and spend ages just gazing into the water watching them.
For someone who loves manatees, as I do, Crystal River is the perfect place to be. Not only can you actually see them here in the wild, but this place also lives and breathes manatees literally everywhere. So, when we were done with manatee watching we stopped at Crystal Rivers “Heritage Village” to get some coffee at Amy’s on the Avenue and then roamed around the little shops along Citrus Avenue. There’s no place like this to indulge your manatee obsession, almost every shop is filled with all kinds of manatee kitsch and knick-knacks.
After one extensive shopping spree, we reviewed our amazing manatee adventures on the porch of the Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters, while the sun slowly set over Crystal River. And as I fell into bed after this perfect day, and slowly drifted off to sleep, I could still feel the tickle of manatee whiskers against my cheek.
Manatees are awesome animals, they’re gentle and curious, and want nothing more than to munch seagrass all day long and live a stress-free life. But they’re also still a threatened species facing major threats like habitat loss and boat collisions. We are still able to enjoy manatees in the wild because of the massive protection efforts some organizations do around Florida. So I would like to encourage everyone who came here and took joy in being around manatees to consider giving something back to help protect them. I, for myself, did an animal sponsorship with the Save the Manatee Club and adopted a manatee to support the organization in their work of manatee protection, rescue, and research.