It was 59 degrees when we stepped outside on a brisk February Florida morning. Climbing into the truck before sunrise to head north on the Gulf Highway (Hwy 19), we were on our way to Citrus County to fulfill my son’s Christmas gift to his sister… swimming with manatees.
When the Gulf water temperature drops, manatees head up into Florida’s crystal clear springs, where it stays in the mid-70s. The Gulf water temperatures can dip down to the low 60s as cold fronts move across North America. Local West Indian manatees seek refuge in the constant flow of the springs as these changes occur.
This makes January to March the best time frame for viewing the manatees in water from arm’s length. For this amazing experience, head to Crystal River (like we did) where you can join an outfitter and other adventurers on a manatee viewing tour.
Once at your vendor of choice, you view a required Swimming with Manatees’ video produced by the State of Florida. This five-minute educational piece informs visitors of the rules and regulations of being in the water with these beautiful, big, grey leviathans.
Kings Bay Spring is normally the first stop on the tour. With bridled enthusiasm, the kids slipped into the 72-degree water in wetsuits, donning snorkels and masks. Flippers are not recommended, as they stir up the bottom sediment to reduce the view of the “mermaids of the deep.”
With our tour boat safely anchored outside of the manatee viewing area, brother and sister headed toward the manatee herd sporting Go Pros in hand. What a joy it is to watch these friendly coastal creatures interacting with their land bound relatives. Inquisitive by nature, manatees are extremely social creatures who will come right up to check you out, welcoming you their world. After about an hour, the captain calls for the aquanauts to return to the pontoon boat. We head to Three Sisters Springs, the most popular of Crystal River’s manatee viewing spots.
While cruising to Three Sisters Springs, we viewed several species of coastal wildlife. Pelicans and cormorants rocked on the bay’s waves. Ospreys shrieked overhead as they hunted their next meal beneath the water’s surface. Playful dolphins chased unlucky mullet against seawalls to savor their favorite breakfast.
Upon arrival to Three Sisters, the entire safe zone is full of peaceful, slumbering manatees. Safe zones are areas set aside by the State of Florida for the manatees to rest without the stress human interaction. This zone allows the new mothers to suckle their young, undisturbed. Manatees leave the constant temperatures of the springs to graze on their favorite food, sea grass. Our viewing takes place as the manatees come and go from the designated area, providing many opportunities for the graceful creatures to slide past at only an arm’s length.
A Christmas wish filled by a brother who loves his sister was more than an amazing family outing. Swimming with the manatees is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for residents and non-residents alike. Sometimes we take all the nature around us for granted. By experiencing this unique interaction, we help ensure our commitment to preserve this kind of opportunity for generations to follow. The peace and beauty of this adventure cannot be described… until it has been experienced. I want my children to bring their children and grandchildren here. When they do, I hope to share it with them.