Not Cuddly, But Endearing
Be passive and don’t splash—with a little luck these sea cows may come up and nudge you as you swim, snorkel, or scuba dive with them. Some may even let you pet their cloudy-grey skin and get close enough to see the whiskers on their sagging snouts. These massive air-breathing mammals need warm water to survive, and they find it in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, in the Kings Bay area near the town of Crystal River on Florida’s west coast. During the winter, you may also be able to swim with them in the Homosassa River. Though by necessity you may be calm in the water, the excitement you’ll experience when you encounter these endearing creatures will keep you exhilarated long after you’ve surfaced.
The manatees, who can grow up to 12 feet long (3.6m), and weigh up to 3,500 pounds (1,588kg), like the waters along Florida’s west coast and head inland along spring-fed rivers during the winter to stay warm. They need an undisturbed habitat, so although once common on the rivers throughout the Sunshine State, their numbers have plummeted due to development. Many bear scars from boat collisions. Because of their tremendous size and their tendency for slowness, boats often hit them before they’re able to move out of the way.
The manatees thrive in Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, where the water is only about four feet deep. Visit the Fish Bowl, a floating underwater observatory, and you’ll have a below-the-surface view of manatees and fish. Over the course of the day, you’ll have the opportunity to participate in three manatee programs, two Wildlife Encounters, and an alligator program scheduled for visitors who want to learn more about Florida’s wildlife.
Several tour operators offer guided tours on the Crystal and Homosassa rivers for snorkeling and swimming with the manatees. Where you go will depend upon the time of year you visit. Some operators offer manatee tours in the Crystal River year-round, and in the Homosassa River November through April. Many tours leave early in the morning—that’s often the best time to interact with the manatee. The actual time in the water is usually about 11⁄2 hours.
During the winter, you can also see manatees at the Lee County Manatee Park. Here, you can rent a kayak and go out on the water, and learn more about these mammals from the volunteer naturalists onsite each day. The “manatee season” here runs November to March. On the Save The Manatees website you can learn more about manatees and find a list of other places in Florida where you can see these massive cute creatures.
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge ( 352/563-2088; www.fws.gov/crystalriver). Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (352/628-5343; www.homosassasprings.org). Lee County Parks & Recreation ( 239-690-5030; www.leeparks.org). Save the Manatee ( 407/539-0990; www.savethemanatee.org).
Tours: Swim With The Manatees ( 352/628-3450; www.swimwithmanatees.com). American Pro Diving Center ( 800/291-3483 or 352/563-0041; www.americanprodiving.com).
When to Go: Winter.
$ Best Western Crystal River Resort, 614 Northwest Hwy. 19 800/435-4409 or 352/795-3171; www.crystalriverresort.com).