I have loved manatees for as long as I can remember, which is somewhat surprising since I live in Wisconsin. There was something so gentle and kind in their sweet faces, and I became fascinated by them at a very young age.
When I learned that they were deeply endangered, I became an eight-year-old activist, joining the Save the Manatee Club immediately and writing a letter to founder Jimmy Buffett about how much I loved manatees (and yes, he actually wrote back). I had a manatee stuffed animal I went to sleep with each night and frequently donned a "Protect the Manatees" sweatshirt.
Fast-forward to today. At nearly 40 years old, I still adore manatees and continue to sponsor Phyllis, the first manatee I ever adopted through Save the Manatee Club. I'm always looking for ways to better appreciate nature while traveling, whether by visiting a national park or viewing wildlife in the area.
So, when I had the chance to visit Crystal River during my recent trip to Florida and fulfill my life's dream of swimming with manatees, I jumped at the chance. The experience was unbelievable and made me value the pristine beauty of the spring-fed rivers and bays found in this Manatee Capital of the World. Sadly, Crystal River and many of Florida's waterways have been damaged by human and environmental factors, which isn't great news for local sea life or recreation enthusiasts. About 25% of yearly manatee fatalities are from watercraft collisions. Cold stress and other environmental factors can also put them in harm's way.
Luckily, there are local efforts being made to restore and protect the Crystal River. As the non-profit Save Crystal River shares, "In 6 years, we have cleaned over 55 acres in Kings Bay, removed over 255 million lbs. of debris and Lyngbya, planted over 310,000 native eelgrass plants and made a visible difference in the quality of our waterways. We share these facts mainly to inspire and empower others to do the same. Together we are stronger, and together everyone can make a difference."
If you're like me and want to make a difference in protecting manatees and other vulnerable animals who call these rivers and bays home during the winter, you can get involved while on a vacation to Crystal River. Read on for ideas on how to be an eco-tourist while visiting the area, where you can add several eco-conscious and sustainable activities to your itinerary.
Crystal River is located along Central Florida's "Nature Coast," which means it's brimming with wildlife and native plants. It also makes it an area that's of top concern to conservationists and one where animals can be observed directly in their natural habitats.
When I participated in an excursion to swim with the manatees, I wanted to be as respectful as possible to these gentle giants since we were the ones coming into their home, not the other way around. Seeing wildlife up close is a wonderful way to appreciate the environment on a deeper level and get inspired to be even more involved, but it should be done in a way that shows the utmost consideration for these animals.
Crystal River and Homosassa are two of the only places in Florida where it's legal to swim with manatees, and there are many companies that offer excursions. To sustainably swim with the manatees, you first need to go with a reputable tour company. I toured with River Ventures, and you can also check out Crystal River Watersports, which has received the "Guardian Guide" designation from Save the Manatee Club and the Manatee Ecotourism Association. An ethical approach to swimming with manatees includes varying tour times that will provide manatees with needed rest time, requiring swimmers to wear wetsuits and floatation devices, and planning times with other tour companies so that areas don't get too congested. These companies often encourage guests to support manatee conservation efforts as well.
I will never forget swimming with the manatees. As we gently glided along the river in the tour boat, I could see all those gray silhouettes right under the water. When I got in the water, I couldn't believe I was swimming right alongside these animals I have loved all my life—the highlight was swimming next to a mom and baby—and it made me want to protect these tender creatures that much more.
While swimming with manatees often tops an eco-tourist's list while visiting the area, there are lots of other ways to observe wildlife and admire nature from the water. One of my favorite ways to do this is taking a guided kayak or paddle board tour (and seeing manatees, pelicans, turtles, and otters along the way) with Crystal River Water Bike Rentals. The views are something you'd find in a picture book, and I always feel blessed to take it all in as I paddle along.
Something new that I discovered this time around was a clear kayak tour that really allowed me to view the manatees and the stunning waters of the Crystal River! Nature Coast Eco Tours is another great choice, offering a wide variety of boat cruises, kayak adventures, and manatee encounters, all led by people with extensive wildlife knowledge.
As I know from visiting the area, the views are just as gorgeous from the shore as they are from the water, and there will still be plenty of chances to see wildlife. Being the outdoor enthusiast that I am, there's nothing quite like grabbing your bike or sneakers and traversing the paved Withlacoochee State Trail. All 46 miles of this trail offer something unique whether it be gorgeous lake views and stops at trailside fruit stands or a chance to experience charming small towns and unique Florida wildlife.
If you prefer to go off-road, the Withlacoochee State Forest offers many miles of wooded trails perfect for backpacking/day hiking, mountain biking, or even equestrian trail riding. Primitive tent camping as well as RV sites and horse stables are available inside the forest if you want to really immerse in the beauty of Florida’s Nature Coast.
To take it a step further and make even more an impact during my eco-vacation, I got involved with local conservation programming. Wondering how that works for a tourist? Well, when you become a Manatee Eco Tourism Association member, you can come along on members-only educational seminars and trips, which include presentations by prominent manatee researchers and tours at a manatee rehab hospital. Or you can volunteer with Save Crystal River to remove algae or plant eelgrass. I couldn't think of a better way to be an eco-conscious tourist than that, can you?
Crystal River is a magical place that provides a safe harbor to manatees and other wildlife. Local advocates are doing their best and succeeding at keeping this habitat a safe place for wildlife to call home. Even if you're visiting, you can do your part by seeing the manatees, and natural areas, in all their glory, donating to local non-profits or even volunteering. I'm so grateful for my experience with the manatees, which has only further inspired me to help them all the way from Wisconsin.