Manatee Adventure by ‘Yak is Fabulous!
Kayak-based manatee experience adventures can start about 8:30 am – and even be scheduled throughout the day at Hunter Springs Kayaks in Crystal River – which is where I enjoyed my latest manatee adventure.
Most of the public, pontoon-based charter services start at 6:30-7 am.
An hour’s drive to Crystal River and my need for morning coffee make me grateful to start a little later.
Upon my arrival, I observed a group oohing and aahing over photos taken by their manatee tour guide. Hunter Springs Kayaks provides this service – taking pictures and video of the manatee encounter and offering it to guests for purchase on a DVD.
A couple appeared soon walked up to the counter and checked in. Three of us would be going out on this manatee adventure with one of Hunter Springs Kayaks’ professional guides – a semi-private tour by luck.
Preparing for our Manatee Adventure
We were shown the Manatee Manners video to help us understand how to interact with the West Indian Manatee upon an encounter.
The Manatee Manners video is required watching for anyone who goes on a manatee encounter tour – while it is legal to swim with manatees in Citrus County, passive observation is the method that is preferred. From the video, we learned why and how to use passive observation for the best manatee encounter without harming these gentle sea cows. We were offered question and answer time after the video by our guide.
Every Hunter Springs Kayaks guide is crazy about manatees, and they come from all over the world to have the opportunity to spend each day sharing their love of Tricheus manatus while paddling through the Kings Bay ecosystem.
Next, our guide is helping us pick our wetsuits and showing us where to change. We donned the neoprene insulators for comfort. Just know that wetsuits help a lot with the 72-degree water, but they don’t make many people look sexy.
Hunter Springs Park is where we start our Kayak Manatee Encounter
What a beautiful morning it is in Crystal River, Florida: sunny and warm, but not hot. I made reservations for my guided manatee tour only a few days ahead. We went to Hunter Springs Park, which is owned by the City of Crystal River. There is a paid parking area, a boardwalk over the water, playground equipment, and a sandy kayak launch area, making it easy to get into our kayaks without toppling over.
After getting settled in our paddle craft, we glide past some tour groups from the “Swim with a Manatee” pontoon tours who were hovering around a magnificent sea cow, watching it rise up to the top, catch a breath and then submerge to rest some more. The groups’ excitement was palpable!
Hunter Springs is a beautiful aquatic environment. Fed by several fresh-water springs, the water is clear, and the designated swim area is a relaxing place to visit. Beyond the swim area were several pontoons anchored to allow visitors to enter the water and experience a manatee for themselves.
The shoreline in the distance consists of seawalls, condos, apartments, and homes. Still, the manatees swim in here to eat the vegetation and enjoy the warmth of the springs environment.
Nature Observation extends beyond the Manatees
While we were anxious to get up-close and personal with a manatee, we didn’t want to crowd into other groups, so we glided off to Hospital Hole. As the humans were left behind, natural environments enveloped us.
Off to our left was a flock of ducks paddling themselves around the open water. A group of three, five and ten-plus were swimming around a sign placed in the water by the governing authorities.
A huge seagull and a green heron were perched atop a boat lift, but we didn’t spot any manatees in the area, so we set off toward Three Sisters Springs. We ventured along the shore through Kings Bay and under a traffic bridge.
Our Hunter Springs Kayaks Guide Spots Happy Manatees
Our Hunter Springs Kayaks Guide paddled a SUP. This gave her a better view for spotting manatees in the water. She led us past the crowds outside the entrance to Three Sisters Springs and quickly found some resting manatees along the canal.
TWO mother and baby manatee groups were a short way past the crowds, and we were able to observe the calf sucking milk from the mother’s teat. This was a special experience I had not encountered before. The passing of nourishment from a wild mother to its offspring is a sacred moment.
So we did not disturb the little families, we ventured onward and up a canal lined by houses and seawalls on both sided.
I quickly spotted two manatees from my kayak – again a mother-calf pair! I stopped and hovered silently in my rented kayak.
Hoping for a photo op to share the experience with you, I was given the gift of a curious calf coming over to “check me out.” Forgive my baby talk…
Over the moon, I communed with one of the wild ones and I was – and am – ecstatic.
Too quickly it was time to return to our place of origin for the trip so we turned our vessels around, paddling back by the mother-calf families we had observed earlier, and the group of manatee observers outside the entrance to Three Sisters Springs and past Pete’s Pier where hundreds of gulls were lazing on the roof of this iconic marina. We saw Bird Island.
On our way back through the canal, we came upon a herd of manatees making babies right in the middle of the day in the water we planned to transverse. We stopped and marveled. You can enjoy the miracle too.
Bird Island was a privately owned island in King’s Bay. A home was built there with a nice dock. Eventually, the house was abandoned, and the birds just took over the island.
Pelicans roosted in the saw palmettos, turning their leaves white with dung. It was quite an interesting site – and story – another reason that I prefer guided tours.
Meeting our Manatee
We headed back to Hunter Springs Park for the summit of our kayaking tour – getting in the water to be with a manatee.
We anchored our kayaks just outside the ropes that define Hunter Springs swimming area and got into the chilly water. Now I was really glad for my wetsuit!
Fifteen feet away was a manatee resting on the bottom within the swim area of Hunter Springs Park. Only our group had seen the 1,000-pound sea mammal with its long whiskers and short snout. The four of us floated over and observed its content demeanor, resting in about 8-10 feet of water.
We were silent and marveled at the creature’s grey form from a short distance away. We made sure this manatee was not obstructed from leaving, should it decide to go and we were cognizant to not reach out and touch it.
It is simply magical to be in the presence of such a large, docile creature who does not display fear-based behaviors. After many minutes, our manatee surfaced and made the “shoosh” sound of letting go of the air in its massive lungs and inhaled, silently returning to the bottom.
My manatee tour group stayed in this scenario until our guide suggested that it was time to end on a high note and go back to shore. Reluctantly, we each left the sea cow’s presence and returned to our ‘yaks, loaded up and paddled back to our origin point.
I have been on more manatee encounter tours than you can count on both hands, and it is always a fresh, spiritual experience. I recommend that you call Hunter Springs Kayaks to schedule yours today.