Swimming with Manatees on Florida’s Nature Coast

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Quietly hidden away, on Florida’s lesser known Nature Coast, lies the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. And each autumn when the first chill in the air arrives on the Gulf of Mexico, the West Indian manatee migration begins in earnest. The best time to observe? Between October and March.

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I arrived at the Plantation on Crystal River Resort in mid October to find the migration had just begun with manatees slowly coming in from the Gulf to warm themselves in the 30 plus natural warm water springs that bubble up all around King’s Bay at a constant 72 degrees.

Although they can be found here year round, the best time to observe is between October and March with prime time being around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

These gentle giants sometimes called sea cows are marine mammals measuring up to 13 feet long and weighing as much as 1300 pounds. They are grey in color with bodies that taper to a flat, paddle shaped tail. Herbivores, they quietly feed on plant life in shallow water and when I was given the opportunity to observe them in the wild with Adventure Center Tour Guide Captain Ed Menster I jumped at the chance.

Plantation Manatee Tour

The Plantation Manatee Tour leaves from their dive shop daily each morning after participants don their wetsuits and watch a short safety video about how to interact by “passively observing” the gentle giants.

I was onboard with Florida resident Tonya Hodat and her nearly ten year old son Tyler. Not being much of a water person and concerned that my splashing about would frighten these shy creatures, I left the exploration to the Hodats. As I watched, they eagerly put on their masks and fins to snorkel peacefully above a mother and calf.

Soon, Captain Ed spotted the telltale bubbles of a manatee pair. What ensued can only be described as an almost surreal experience as the mother manatee nursed her baby and Captain Ed captured it all on his underwater GoPro camera as Tonya and Tyler watched in awe.

The calf was in a playful mood as it gently nuzzled the swimmers and the curious mother was so close to Captain Ed while he was recording that he said he could feel her whiskers brushing against his mask.

There was never a fear factor involved with the swimmers as they floated quietly over the pair. In fact, the manatees almost seemed to welcome the interaction.

After nearly an hour of observation, our pontoon boat headed for the serenity of Three Sisters Springs.

Three Sisters Habitat

Three Sisters is a major winter time protected habitat for manatees but when we arrived we had it all to ourselves as the temperatures had not yet driven the manatees further inland.

We anchored the boat outside the springs on a canal and explored by swimming up a narrow tree lined channel to access the springs themselves.

The sun dappled, crystal clear warm water was bubbling up from the sandy bottom at three different points in the area about the size of a football field. Captain Ed led us to the source of each of the springs while pointing out a school of playful mullet zipping by.

Three Sisters is also the only spring accessible by land as a new boardwalk has just been opened for those unwilling or unable to get in the water.

Our three hour tour concluded as Captain Ed and Tyler enjoyed a brief swim in the canal as a manatee made its way in from the Gulf on the “Manatee Superhighway”.

Once back at the dock, Captain Ed played the videos and showed us the still photos of our adventure. The DVD is available for purchase.

Manatee Tours are offered year-round at Plantation’s Adventure Center and Dive Shop but in the winter guests are guaranteed to see manatees in large numbers.

If You Go

Plantation on Crystal River offers Snorkel With the Manatees packages starting at $112 per person that includes lodging, all necessary gear, breakfast for two at their West 82 Bar and Grill, and a welcome bag with plush manatee toys.

Other tours offered include the Snorkel the Springs Package for divers and Plantation on the Hook for fishermen. For complete information and to reserve a tour package call 800-632-6262 or the Dive Shop directly at 352-795-5797.

The Plantation is adjacent to pristine lakes and rivers as well as wildlife refuges and state parks. On site, it has a full service marina with boat rentals, an 18 hole golf course, a 9 hole executive golf course, Aveda Spa, tennis courts, and delectable dining.

It is about an hour and a half drive from either Orlando or Tampa/Clearwater airports. Check out all the details on the Plantation Resort at Plantation On Crystal River.

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Mark Bradley has always had a pent up desire to see the world going back to the time he saw his first movie travelogue at the tender age of ten years old. At the turn of the new millennium when it suddenly dawned on him -- it was time to see the world. He says "I pledged to visit all 50 US states by my 50th birthday in 2005" and did so with his final four states coming into view as he followed the Lewis and Clark Trail on the bicentennial of their epic journey. With five continents and fifty states in his rearview mirror, he looks forward to continuing to explore all this big, beautiful world has to offer.

Photos courtesy of Plantation Dive Shop.

Published: February 2, 2015

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