Florida is home to a lot of special stuff. Huge-ass tourist traps, old people that barely have any clothes on (think Key West), and fat, floating creatures that do little more than fart, eat, and sleep – manatees.
Manatees can be found all throughout Florida year-round, but when it gets colder out (between November and March), these guys will often congregate at freshwater springs because the water temperature remains a constant 72*F. Manatees are susceptible to cold stress and may die if they are exposed to cold water for too long. While these cute, cuddly-looking guys just got off the endangered species list, the protections that Florida has on these guys is still in place. Citrus county, about eighty miles north of Tampa, is the only place in the world where you can legally swim with the West Indian Manatee. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I would definitely recommend for anyone wanting to experience the “Real Florida”. There are a few ways to do this:
- Get a charter: River Ventures tends to be the most popular one for Three Sisters. They have skilled guides go out with you who instruct you every step of the way. This is probably your best bet if you’re a novice to everything, including snorkeling, Florida wildlife, and the manatee laws (like passive observation).
- Get a kayak/canoe/SUP from a charter: A great option if you’re an intermediate-to-advanced diver and are familiar with the manatee laws. It’ll cost you money and you’ll probably have to reserve your watercraft in advance, but it’s easier than lugging your shit around.
- Bring your own boat: find somewhere to park and launch, and it’s free. No reservation required.
- Beach Entry: While not as populated as Three Sisters is, Hunter Spring Park in Crystal River offers beach access (new this year) to a first-magnitude spring where manatee sightings are common. Dive right in!
It’s nearly sunrise as I haul my ten-foot kayak off of my car and let it clumsily fall onto the parking lot with a loud crash. I get some side-eye from a great egret nearby, having clearly disturbed his peace and his hunting on the creek’s edge. Him and I are the only ones out this early, and as I mutter an apology to him, he grunts and flies off. Kings Bay, located in Citrus County, is home to over seventy freshwater springs, most of which are first-magnitude and dump out millions of gallons of water per day. The water may have traveled from as far away as the Appalachian mountain range, seeping under the ground into limestone aquifers that have been here for millennia. It is these same subterranean systems that expel water into the springs and bay; the constant 72-degree water makes the ideal wintering grounds for cold-stressed manatees. Citrus County takes pride in their ecotourism and as I launch my kayak and paddle down the Crystal River, it becomes crystal clear (pun intended) why this area is lovingly known as the Manatee Capital of the World.
Surprisingly, I’m not the first one there. A group of tourists sit in their bright red kayaks. They excitedly talk in German and point to the large, grey snout rising above the water three feet in front of them. A thirteen-foot cow, accompanied by her calf not too far off, have momentarily awoke from their slumber to breathe. Manatees, like us, are mammals and must breathe fresh air in order to survive. Somewhere down the line, manatees (and dugongs) split from the evolutionary clade giving us elephants, and chose instead to occupy a niche underwater. Like elephants though, these gentle giants have tough, bristly hides, a prehensile upper lip, and round nails on the distal part of each manus (sorry, veterinary words, can’t break the habit). Unlike most mammals however, manatees only have six cervical vertebrae. Manatees also lack gyri and sulci, which are the undulating hills and valleys in the brain’s cerebral cortex associated with memory and higher cognition. Scientists theorize that these changes were made in light of the manatee’s overly simplistic lifestyle and, at least for the brain part, are what cause them to be so gosh darn docile.
Finding a place to tie up my kayak can be a struggle. There’s an eighty-foot tie line by the spring entrance, but one has to be cognizant of the roped-off manatee sanctuaries nearby and make sure your watercraft does not drift into them. Luckily, I’m able to find a spot and waste no time attaching my bright orange tiedown to the tie line (blue kayak, orange accessories, you see what this is). My sit-on-top kayak provides easy access to the spring. After donning a mask and dry snorkel, I quietly and calmly ease myself over the side of my kayak and into the crystal clear water. Other people begin to arrive and do the same; soon there is a chartered tour with thirty people in life vests and pool noodles entering the water too. All of us spread out, some going in the springs while others – like me – stay behind and idle around the entrance to the springs. Three Sisters Springs is made up of three springs that have formed in a cloverleaf pattern, if you will. Together, the springs provide around 31% of the water feeding into Kings Bay. Big Sister, Pretty Sister, and Little Sister are mostly open to swimmers, although today Big Sister and Little Sister are roped off as designated manatee protection zones.
Entering the water with these gentle giants is an experience that simply can’t be put into words. As I amble along, quietly using just my arms to swim, I am joined by a calf. No more than a year old, it paddles up to me, curious. Its mother watches from a distance, yawning. Soon, I am face-to-face with the calf, whose courage has increased to the point where it now tries to chew on my mask. I feel blessed. The calf stays with me for a couple of minutes, determining if my mask and ponytail are edible, but with a couple of squeaks, mom calls her baby back to her. I am told by one of the US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) rangers that this kind of interaction is very common here and that the stiller and quieter you are, the more likely you are to be “kissed” by a manatee.
I could stay in the chest-deep water with these gentle giants forever, but after a couple of hours more tourists arrive and the springs become too crowded for my taste. I quickly try the main springs, swimming up the spring run past a bunch of tourist groups who are clearly out of their element. I see more pairs of cows and calves dozing well past the roped-off border of Little Sister Spring, who will occasionally roll over in their slumber or bump into another manatee. Other than the congregation of manatees in Little Sister, the spring head is completely devoid of manatees, so I decide to call it a day and paddle back to the launch point.
My day isn’t over yet. After drying off, I meet with my friends Maria and Mary. Maria is my best friend who works as an anatomy teacher at my alma mater, and Mary is a veterinarian from Iowa. They decided the night before that it was simply too cold to go in the water with me (a choice I am starting to agree with them on), but still want to see the manatees in Three Sisters Springs. Thankfully, the springs are run by the City of Crystal River and the USFWS, who have provided a walking path around the springs and some of Crystal River. We park in Kings Bay Plaza, choosing not to opt for the trolley that departs from City Hall every 30 minutes. We agree that the quarter-mile walk to the springs will be good for us and will allow for some time to warm up. The entry to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is a small gate, accompanied by a small wooden hut that is open from November to March. It is fifteen dollars to enter the NWR, but knowing that the money goes directly to manatee research and conservation gives me peace of mind. The park ranger hands each of us a map and points out the trail – a small, solid loop around the springs and some of the surrounding area. After listening to her, the three of us are off, taking in the scenery on the dirt path that leads to the wooden boardwalk around Three Sisters Springs. Along the way, Mary and I talk about veterinary cases and reminisce on how stressful vet school is, and Maria chimes in from time to time about her experience in grad school as well. Maria is also a dog trainer and professional dog showman, who has won national titles with her Belgian Tervurens. Like tends to attract like, and while both Maria and Mary are both over twice my age, we get along perfectly (I am an old soul at heart and don’t enjoy the usual activities of others my age).
The three of us round a corner on the boardwalk and suddenly we are met by about twenty-five manatees, huddled together and sleeping in a protected part of the spring. A small calf, probably born in late summer, pops up in front of us. “Look at the baby!” I find myself reflexively saying before I even realize I had done so; no matter how often I see manatees, I still get excited every time as if I have never seen one before. Maria and Mary chuckle and decide to wander off, checking out the other parts of the spring while I stay and dote over the calf. I also find it amusing to watch the tourists on their excursion, most of which have never donned a mask and snorkel. One tourist in particular has trouble putting his face underwater, and after a bit of reluctance is given an extra pool noodle by one of the guides. “This probably wasn’t the right tour for you,” I hear the tour guide say, and I nod my head in agreement from above. Sometimes, as if to tease them, manatees will swim right underneath the oblivious tourists, who are too concerned with how to breathe out of a snorkel than to look down.
A half hour passes and I get a text on my phone. “Come over to Magnolia Springs, there are TONS here,” it says. I follow the trail back, walking the continuation of the dirt path loop where the boardwalk ends. The dirt path is now lined with bluebird houses, little white wooden boxes that stick out on poles four or five feet above the ground. I soon see Mary and Maria, staring at the water before them. There are easily fifty floating grey mounds rising above the water’s surface, manatees resting without people disturbing them. “That’s impressive,” I comment, “they certainly have found the right spot.” I admit to envy the manatees, with their simplistic lifestyle. “All they do is eat and sleep, and it’s the law to leave them alone. I couldn’t think of a better life!”
The rest of the walk back is gorgeous, filled with scrubland. There’s a bathouse, smaller than the one’s I’m used to in Gainesville, but there nonetheless. We pack up and on the way back, decide to stop by Seaforest Gifts in Inglis. It’s a small hole-in-the-wall shell shop on the way back to Gainesville filled with all sorts of unique and adorable shells and oceanic-themed gifts. Although I wanted to take everything home, I restricted myself and only brought home a manatee sculpture, wooden dolphin wall mount, and a manatee ornament. If you’re in the area, SeaForest Gifts is a great place to go if you want some stereotypical Florida souvenirs.
Seaforest Gifts is open seven days per week from 9A-5P. They are located at 14440 SE Hwy 19, Inglis, FL 34449 and can be reached at 352.447.1455.
Have you been swimming with manatees? What was it like? Where did you go? Share your stories in the comments below!