Florida Travel: Snorkeling in the Manatee Capital of the World, Crystal River

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I have paddled kayaks alongside Florida manatees and have visited several places throughout the Sunshine State to view sea cows. Now, I can check snorkeling with manatees off my bucket list.

A Manatee Grazes in the Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019.
A Manatee Grazes in the Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019.

Manatees are loud eaters. I heard a constant “munch” sound while floating like Superman above a manatee. As the gentle giant slowly drifted inches above the bay bottom, I watched in awe. Her prehensile lips sucked up sea grass from the its path, just as my iRobot Roomba whisks up cat fur.

Snorkeling in the Manatee Capital of the World, Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019
Snorkelers Observe a Manatee in Crystal River, Fla, April 27, 2019.

When Water Temperatures Drop

Manatee season happens when sea cows migrate to warmer waters roughly between mid-November and March 31. When water temperatures are cooler than 68 degrees Fahrenheit, these gentle giants are susceptible to hypothermia which may be fatal. There are several places warm enough for them to live year-round. Crystal River, about a 2.5-hour drive north of my North Port home, is one of those destinations. In fact, it is the Manatee Capital of the World!

Me with My "I Woke Up Like This Look" with My Superhero Suit.
Me with My “I Woke Up Like This Look” with My Superhero Suit.

Worth the O’Dark-Thirty Wake Up Call

On an April Saturday morning, I rolled out of my driveway at 5:30 to pick up family visiting from the chilly north. This gave us plenty of drive-time to arrive for our 9:45 a.m. semi-private excursion from the Plantation Adventure Center in Crystal River. The tour takes place in Kings Bay which is 600 acres with a two-mile diameter and has the largest concentration of Florida manatees in the world. During the winter months, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates there are about 600 manatees and during the rest of the year, about 30.

Upon arrival to the Plantation Adventure Center, we signed waivers and dressed in 5-millimeter wetsuits provided by the operator. It was like shimmying into a pair of size-too-small, full-body Spanx. But, I sure did feel like a superhero in that black and pink suit. Apparently, I must have felt like a manatee because one of the other snorkeling participants bumped into me in the water and kept patting my thigh. Anyway…

Snorkeling in the Manatee Capital of the World, Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019
Boats with Snorkelers Anxious to Watch Manatees in the Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019

Manatees, Lovely to Look At

Personally, manatees have adorable faces. I just want to wrap my arms around them and give them a big ol’ hug. Fortunately for them, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, Endangered Species Act of 1973, and Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. This means, it is unlawful to capture, harass, hunt or kill one. Doing so can result in hefty fines and/or imprisonment. This includes touching and hugging, unless they initiate contact. Well, they will touch you but not hug you.

Before hopping on the pontoon, we watched a video and learned about passive observation, the lawful and proper way to snorkel with manatees. Some of the forbidden activities include reaching out and touching, riding, stepping on, poking with an object, and diving next to this mammal. There is a lot to remember about what you can and cannot do around them. Fortunately, a guide keeps you in check during the excursions.

Snorkeling in the Manatee Capital of the World, Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019
This Manatee Made Contact with a Snorkeler Passively Observing While in the Superman Position in the Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019.

“Show Me Your Superman”

Less than 10 minutes into the trip, the group of six was in the water observing a least three manatees. Capt. Misty, an Adventure Center tour guide, led the group into the water while Capt. Mark manned the boat.
“Show me your Superman,” Capt. Mark called to me as I climbed down the boat’s ladder into the 70-ish degree water.

What he was referring to was posing for passive observation. This is done by extending arms and legs out, like the superhero. A masked-face is in the water while breathing through the snorkel. Fins were not used, with the exception of the guide, and the wetsuits are buoyant. For anyone not comfortable in relying on the suit, foam swim noodles are available to keep a snorkeler afloat.

In addition to the Superman pose, another rule of the trip was no touching the bottom and no splashing water. The first is because touching the bay bottom stirs up sediment and clouds the water for viewing. The second is because the sound and vibration from splashing the water may scare or irritate. As Capt. Mark explained, manatees are covered with short, sensitive hairs and splashing water is the equivalent of having water splashed in your face. Pretty annoying.

Snorkeling in the Manatee Capital of the World, Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019
A Snorkeler Passively Observing a Manatee in the Crystal River During a Trip with the Plantation Adventure Center, April 27, 2019.

That Magical Manatee Experience

Doing my best, non-splashing doggy paddle, I spotted my first manatee and watched as she swam next to me. The water was a bit cloudy making it difficult to see. It must have been difficult for the manatees to see, too. One bumped my thigh and brushed my extended hand. Since the mammal initiated contact, that interaction is a permissible under law.

After watching the gentle giants, which can weigh between 800 and 1,200 pounds, we loaded into the boat and headed toward Three Sisters Springs in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Capt. Misty said there won’t be any manatees but the scenery is worth a visit.

Motorized boats are not permitted so Capt. Mark anchored the boat and we began swimming toward the springs. Capt. Misty then called out that a manatee was opposite the springs’ entrance. My family and I forwent the springs to watch this and other manatees.

Snorkeling in the Manatee Capital of the World, Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019
This is One of the Manatee Tails I Observed During a Manatee Snorkeling Trip with the Plantation Adventure Center in Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019.

Passively Watching Manatees in the Superman Pose

While in the Superman pose, we watched manatees as they innocently ate, swam, and surfaced for air. They did not seem to mind the dozens of snorkelers and kayakers who gathered to watch them lazily swim and feed.

Of the three that swam under me, they each had white scars etched in their steel-grey colored skin, at least one set looked as though a cat dragged its claws across it. I noticed a light covering of algae on one, which is common. At least one of their paddle-shaped tails had several notches around the edges.

There is something magical about encountering a manatee and I hope I never tire of seeing them. Observing and having some interaction with them was another reminder to live in and appreciate the moment.

Snorkeling in the Manatee Capital of the World, Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019
Snorkelers Observe a Manatee During a Trip with the Plantation Adventure Center in Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019.

Video of Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River

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Nuts & Bolts About Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River

Plantation Adventure Center
9301 W Fort Island Trail
Crystal River, Florida34429
Tel: (352) 795-5797
www.plantationadventurecenter.com

Group, semi-private, and private manatee snorkeling tours are available. I booked the semi-private tour which accommodates up to 6 people and offered at 6:30 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. Tour length is about 3 hours and $99 per person. Tours are offered year-round and manatees are wild animals. This means they are somewhat unpredictable. However, I was told this tour sees manatees year-round. November – March are the prime times to snorkel with the manatees.

There is no age requirement to participate but keep in mind, all participants need to be able to be quiet and calm in the water. Children must be accompanied by an adult.

Snorkeling in the Manatee Capital of the World, Crystal River, Fla., April 27, 2019
I’ve Stayed at the Plantation Crystal River Several Times Over the Years, Great Place!

Where to Stay

Plantation Crystal River
9301 W Fort Island Trail
Crystal River, Fla. 34429
Tel: (352) 795-4211 or 1-800-632-6262
www.plantationoncrystalriver.com

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Author: Solo Travel Girl

Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., a hiking trail led Jennifer Huber, aka: Solo Travel Girl, to a career path in tourism. She has worked in the tourism industry for more than 20 years including 10 years with a park management company in Yellowstone, Death Valley and Everglades National Park. She currently lives in Southwest Florida, and maintains this travel blog with the goal of inspiring others to travel alone, not lonely.

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1 Comment

  1. That sounds amazing.

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