I’m a Floridian, but the backyard adventures in the Sunshine State still surprise and delight me on a daily basis. That might mean spotting a bald eagle atop a telephone pole while waiting at a traffic light or catching sight of a pod of dolphins cruising along a calm waterway. For one of the most reliable and heartwarming animal encounters in all of Florida (if not all the world!), I head to one very special place in Crystal River, where you can kayak and snorkel among manatees throughout much of the year.
When temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico drop below the 70 degree Fahrenheit mark, manatees make for the relative warmth of the state’s many springs that pump out water at a constant 72 degrees. While visitors can see manatees year-round, November through April is peak viewing season, with the local manatee population at its highest between December and February. That’s why many people visit Crystal River in Citrus County during winter to see the animals up close and swim with them during organized boat tours in one of the only places in the world where it’s possible.
I’m here for a more independent exploration of the area. I plan to rent a kayak and wetsuit from a local outfitter and navigate on my own out into Kings Bay. There, the spring-fed waterways will give me an up-close encounter with the manatees where they dwell.
“Manatees don’t have calendars, they have thermometers,” Cody Cummins, the store manager of Bird’s Underwater Dive Shop, explains as I walk into the shop in Crystal River early one January morning. He’s talking to a group of people from England, North Carolina and beyond—kids and adults among them—as he hands out wetsuits and readies the group for a pontoon boat tour to a nearby spring head, where they’ll have the chance to enter the water with manatees at one of their most important gathering grounds.
I join the group trying on wetsuits for the perfect size and adjust my rental mask and snorkel until they fit just right (fins can disturb the manatees, so we don’t use them). When the manatees appear, I want to be ready to enter the water immediately and feel comfortable. My wetsuit serves two purposes. It will help keep me warm for an extended period of time in the relatively chilly water, and its buoyancy will also help keep me afloat on the surface without requiring much movement to stay in place.
It’s a privilege to enter the water with these animals, after all, and our goal is to be passive bystanders in the manatees’ environment, causing as little disturbance as possible. We settle in to watch a short video in the shop called “Manatee Manners” that details the Do's and Don't's of meeting a manatee, then it’s time to set off.
I feel my pulse quicken as we walk the few steps from the shop to the small marina, tucked inside a scenic cove on the north side of King’s Bay. Cummins shares useful tips for paddling the sit-atop kayak. “Keep your hands shoulder-width apart on the paddle and use your waist—not your arms— since your arms tire out a lot faster,” he says.
I’m equipped with a map of the bay that clearly marks the way to Three Sisters Springs (about a 25-minute paddle, one way) as well as a small anchor I can toss out to keep the kayak fixed should I want to enter the water to swim. Cummins gives me a gentle push off the dock and an enthusiastic “Have fun!" as I dip my paddle into the calm water and set out for an island nearby.
I’ve been underway for less than five minutes when I see the telltale boiling mark on the water’s surface that indicates a manatee below. I stop paddling and let my kayak drift like a leaf in a stream. Then I hear a whoosh of air—a manatee exhalation is a sound you cannot forget, like the breath of life itself—and I see two black nostrils rise from the water’s surface. My heart is racing, not from fear but with wonder. I watch the animal’s curved back, as matte as river stone, break the surface and float there within feet of me. Before long, the manatee submerges again, taking my reverie state with it.
It’s an easy paddle along the shoreline from there, past a pier and under a low bridge to the springhead at Three Sisters. Homes line the narrow canal, and I marvel at the fact that such ancient animals live here alongside such modernity. I drift a finger in the water alongside the boat, feeling the coolness creep into my bones, wondering if I’ll have the courage to get into the water.
When I get to the springhead, I realize I’ve been so focused on what’s in front of me that I failed to see what was all around me. Those manatees who don’t have calendars also don’t have borders. They’re all around me outside the spring entrance in the river itself, rolling on their sides and peering up at the world from tiny eyes that get lost in all their folds. My jaw slacks in awe.
This is the moment I’ve been waiting for, and not even the brisk winter water is a deterrent. I drop my anchor and gently slide from the kayak into the manatees’ world, snorkel clenched between my teeth, my eyes wide in my mask.
My wetsuit provides heat, but it’s my heart that’s instantly warmed at the sight below. A mother manatee and her calf are resting in the water column, just a few feet under me. I am frozen with joy and I feel my skin prickle with emotion as I realize they aren’t the only ones. Several other manatees glide past, and one comes close to me for a nuzzle on my elbow.
It’s another close encounter that I’ll no doubt remember for life—and one you can only have right here in Crystal River.