They call this area the Nature Coast for good reason. Crystal River, Florida, sits in the sparsely populated area north of Tampa Bay and offers many outdoorsy things to do: fishing, kayaking, biking, hiking nature trails. But the biggest attraction is the manatees. But the biggest attraction is the manatees.
Manatees are often called “sea cows.” The adults can exceed 1,000 pounds. They eat seagrasses other marine vegetation.
King’s Bay at Crystal River is home to the largest concentration of manatees in the United States. The endangered mammals cluster there in the winter months to escape the cold waters in the Gulf of Mexico and rivers. During the cold-weather months of November to March, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission, it’s estimated nearly a thousand manatees crowd their way into the relatively warm waters of the bay. Manatees can’t survive in water temperatures below 68 degrees.
The water in the bay and numerous springs stays a relatively warm 72-73 degrees year-round. Manatees crowd into the springs when the weather is cold, and when it warms up they swim back into the bay and even head down the eight-mile Crystal River to the Gulf of Mexico. While winter is the peak season for manatee viewing, some of the herd stays in the bay year-round.
As one shop owner in town described it, the area is home “to manatees and retirees.” Many businesses in town depend on manatee tourism to survive. There are at least a dozen companies that offer manatee swimming tours. Others are kayak outfitters, offering rentals to tourists interested in doing their own paddling in the manatee waters.
1. Things To Know About Finding Manatees
While manatees can be spotted throughout the bay, the mega manatee habitat in cold weather is Three Sisters Springs. We hopped a boat ride from Captain Mike’s manatee swim charters to see the gentle giants for ourselves. Captain Bill Ruiz and Dive Guide Liz Van Fleet knew right where to take us. Outfitted in wet suits, snorkels, and pool noodles for flotation, we jumped in the water.
We found several manatees in the springs, including a momma and her calf. There were dozens of swimmers in the water, and the manatees didn’t seem to be bothered by all the attention. In fact, they appeared curious.
While the spring water is warm to manatees, it is cold for humans. A wet suit is highly recommended, preferably 3 millimeters thick. Liz, your guide, is in the water eight hours a day and actually wears two wet suits to stay comfortable. Some divers use “shorty” suits, but I recommend full-body suits if you’re going to be in the water for any period of time. Keep in mind the springs are 72 degrees year-round, so even during the hot Florida summers, the water is cold.
On the surface, snorkelers and kayakers paddle the springs looking for sea cows. It was my observation that the manatees stayed back in the springs and did not approach the kayaks. All that attention can be a little overwhelming.
I have paddled my kayak with manatees before. Don’t approach them, but they often will approach you. They are docile, and at times even approach swimmers and seem to want to play. They are endangered and protected, so it is against the law to touch them, but often it is the manatee that actually initiates the contact.
They are completely non-aggressive, but avoid getting between a momma manatee and her calf.
The manatee herds have increased in recent years, but death rates can be frightful. They are a very susceptible species. The biggest threat is boat traffic. Manatees are slow swimmers and can’t get out of the way of props on fast-moving boats. It is not uncommon to see manatees with deep scars on their backs from an encounter with a boat. Most manatee areas have slow-speed regulations for boaters. Manatees are also dying from starvation in some areas of Florida where pollution has killed off seagrasses, their main food source. I have seen video of manatees actually boosting their heads up on the shoreline to eat grass and weeds at the water’s edge. While a certain number of manatees die from exposure when they can’t find warm water in the winter, man is their greatest threat.
2. Local Parks Where Your Manatee Experience Can Start
King’s Bay Park is just off Citrus Avenue downtown and is a major launch area for kayaks. Nearby is Hunter’s Springs Park, which has a small sand beach that also serves as a kayak launch point. You get the feeling just about everybody in Crystal River has a kayak.
The Crystal River State Preserve is located along the Crystal River, west of town, and offers hiking trails. It covers 27,000 acres of natural uplands and wetlands. There is a 90-minute boat tour on the river that operates Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Not far away is the beautiful, 31,000-acre Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. It is a focal point for bird watchers. This refuge in Homosassa, Florida, protects saltwater bays, estuaries, brackish marshes, and hardwood swamps.
If you like to camp, try the county park, Chassahowizka River Campground. It has RV and tent sites, and pets are permitted as long as you have up-to-date shot records.
In case you’re wondering, Chassahowizka is the Seminole phrase for “River of Hanging Pumpkins.” Who knew?
3. Things To Do In Crystal River When Not Swimming With Manatees
Beyond actually swimming with the manatees, the next best thing is watching them. The best place to do that is the Three Sisters Spring Wildlife Refuge. There is a short boardwalk and trail that leads you around the springs, with a number of observation areas to see the manatees. You can get to the refuge by catching a paid shuttle bus at Crystal River City Hall. There is no parking at the refuge. The shuttles run every 30 minutes.
Taking a break from manatees, you will find fine art studios on North Citrus Avenue in downtown Crystal River. We toured Coastal Art Gallery, which features local artists, each displaying their works in separate rooms of the converted house.
Across the street is the Franklin Anderson Gallery of Arts. Both are within walking distance.
4. Places To Stay On The Water In Crystal River
The Best Western is a clean and well-maintained hotel downtown on U.S. 19. Captain Mike’s manatee tour office is located inside the hotel, and the tour boats are docked right by the pool. The hotel has a spa and offers full-course breakfasts.
The Plantation is a resort offering golf and a spa. They will also book your manatee excursion. The marina rents boats and kayaks, or you can launch your own. It has an 18-hole championship golf course.
Kings Bay Lodge is an Old Florida lodge on the water. This lodge dates back to the 1950s and started out as a fish camp. Diving for scallops, paddling to see manatees, going fishing -- you can do it all from their waterfront location.
Port Hotel and Marina has a waterfront tiki bar as well as kayak and pontoon boat rentals. This hotel goes back to the 1940s, and Elvis Presley once stayed there while making a movie in the area.
All of these hotels and resorts are located on the water at King’s Bay.
5. Places To Eat In Crystal River
The Vintage on 5th offers fine dining at it’s best. The wine list is extensive. My traveling partner loved the grilled grouper. I had the tenderloin. Reservations are highly recommended.
BubbaQue’s Real Pit Grillin has great barbecue with lots of choices for sauces. Located on Citrus Avenue, downtown.
Grannies is where the locals eat for breakfast and lunch. Located on U.S. 19, south of downtown.
6. Crystal River Is A Kayak Town
Kayaks are everywhere in Crystal River. You can rent them solo or go on guided tours in King’s Bay and the springs. You’ll find outfitters everywhere you look in town.
Crystal River is a small town, so you’re never far away from anything. Traffic on U.S. 19 can be a little congested, but otherwise, it’s easy to get around. My only objection was the paid parking at city parks and kayak launches.
Assistance for this article was provided by Miles Saunders and Discover Crystal River. I am grateful for the help. It’s a great place to visit.