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Divers are not allowed to touch the manatees, but that doesn't mean the manatees can't get up close and personal. It's their choice. / Photo by Plantation Adventure Center

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. — Manatees are early risers. So if you want to swim in the wild with these aquatic mammals, you'll have to be too.

Our pontoon boat launched around 6 a.m., but the predawn wake-up call was soon forgotten in the magical moments that I found myself floating freely in the waters of the Crystal River, no more than 24 inches above the gentle giants of the sea as they glided silently beneath me.

Manatees migrate to the warm-water springs of Crystal River every winter and generally stay through March, when the ocean waters become warm enough for their return to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

We launched from the marina at Plantation Adventure Center, an outfitter on the banks of Crystal River and an arm of The Plantation on Crystal River, a grand Florida resort now in its 63rd year. There are quite a few tour guides offering the manatee experience, but none as convenient as the Adventure Center, just a stone's throw from the resort's front desk.

There are a couple of other reasons to use this outfitter. Coffee and hot chocolate were offered onboard to ward off a cool Florida morning, particularly chilly after a couple of hours in the water. And while most other places offer wetsuits that are 3 millimeters thick, the Plantation's are 5 millimeters thick, allowing for more warmth in the water. You'll also float like a cork. No need for cumbersome pool noodles.

This is a popular excursion, so there may be a few boatloads of people occupying the same stretch of water, but the river is wide and there's room for all. However, there's no guarantee that the manatees will be there when you are, said our boat captain, John Spann. The day before our trip, none were seen. Twenty-four hours later, there were numerous manatees resting in the warm waters of the springs that bubble up from deep down in the Earth. We snorkeled through the clear river water, using our arms, not feet, so as not to disturb the resting manatees — males, females and their calves.

Photo Gallery

Swimming with the manatees in Florida's Crystal River

 

A MANATEE MATINEE

After seeing the manatees underwater, there are several places you can visit in the Crystal River area that offer viewing experiences above water.

Three Sisters Springs, a unit of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, is one of the areas that we snorkeled, and it provides a safe, roped-off haven for the manatees. Snorkelers cannot go past the line, but a boardwalk around the springs allows walkers to view into the crystal-clear water from above and see the mammals from a different perspective.

Tickets to the springs may be purchased at the Three Sisters Springs Center. A trolley that runs every 20 minutes or so will take you there and back. The boardwalk around the springs is well-staffed with volunteers to answer any questions.

For an all-encompassing afternoon to see more wildlife native to Florida's waters and woodlands, take the 10-minute drive to Homosassa, Florida, and the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, the second-most-visited state park in the state. The park, once a tourist attraction with exotic animals, is now part of the Florida State Parks system. The only animal that remains from the animal park is Lu the hippo, now 60 years old and said to be the oldest hippo in the Americas and most assuredly not native to Florida. All of the other animals are native, but are unable to return to their native habitats due to injury or other reasons.

Just as the water in Crystal River is clear, so is the water at Homosassa Springs. The water is warmed by the springs, and manatees love it. You can expect to see many from your perch in the viewing platform above the Homosassa River. Make a day of it. Bring a picnic or purchase food from a small café in the visitors center.

 

COMEBACK STORY

Floridians love their manatees. You'll find the sea cows' roly-poly bodies emblazoned on ball caps, face masks, T-shirts, beach bags and koozies. In the 1960s, there were only about 500 manatees left in the wild due to human encroachment along Florida waterways, water pollution and collisions with boats and ships.

Manatees were classified as endangered species in the late '60s by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In coordination with Florida Fish and Wildlife, their numbers have multiplied significantly. As of 2019, there were an estimated 13,000 manatees worldwide, with about half of them taking up residence in Florida waters.

While most of the manatees disappear from Crystal River come April, Spann said there are a number of permanent residents, so the manatee tours happen year-round, However, chances of an encounter diminish in the spring and summer until the larger groups return in the fall.

And when you do see them, leave them be. Touching them is a big no-no while you're snorkeling, kayaking or swimming. Manatees are a protected species.

 

WHERE TO STAY

There are a number of mom-and-pop motels and motor courts in Citrus County, as well as several chain hotels. The Plantation on Crystal River, where we stayed, is part of the Choice Hotels Ascend Collection. In addition to the Adventure Center, the hotel offers a heated pool, the West 82 Bar & Grill (the she-crab soup is a must), two bars (one poolside), shuffleboard, volleyball, biking, paddling and other activities that celebrate the outdoors.

Rooms in the historic, plantation-style hotel have been updated, and the fitness center is well-stocked with treadmills, weights and other equipment to keep you in shape if snorkeling and paddling the Crystal River don't do it for you.

Walking along the King's Bay Riverwalk — a path that's a work in progress — takes you along the waterfront and into the downtown area with its restaurants and shops. Our walk took us past King's Bay Lodge, a motor court straight out of the 1950s, and Retreat at Crystal Manatee, another family-owned hotel. You can also find Hampton Inn, Comfort Suites and a host of others where you can lay your head after a day of adventure.

 

WHERE TO DINE

Crystal River has been rediscovered by chefs whose creative endeavors bring new dimensions in dining to the area.

From the outside, Vintage on 5th looks like a charming, cottage-style eatery. But chef Aaron Davidson does magic with seafood, steaks, rack of lamb and other cuts of meat. I'd checked out the menu beforehand, and when I saw "fresh seafood market selection depends on what is fresh, interesting and available" I knew in advance that would be my dinner — whatever it was. In this case, it was Chilean sea bass with sweet pepper hollandaise over creamy sun-dried tomato-caper risotto. The flavor combination was amazing.

Something new and delicious is happening in Homosassa thanks to chef Wallace Phaire at Wallace's at the Greenhouse. The restaurant is a small green house along a very busy four-lane highway, across the street from a large car dealership. The road was under construction, so it wasn't easy getting into the parking lot, but it was worth the little bit of trouble I had finding the entrance.

The restaurant is, surprisingly, a peaceful haven with a lake out back and a remarkable wine program, along with a fresh menu of steaks, pasta, seafood, barbecue ribs, sandwiches, salads, burgers — the usual stuff, but all prepared in interesting fashion.

The shrimp and grits, for example, is not the usual mound of grits with shrimp on top. Here, you'll find it topping a cake of cheddar grits with charred corn, tomatoes and andouille sausage all drizzled with a dreamy Cajun cream sauce. Even the grilled cheese sandwiches are different. Case in point: The JPD Grilled Cheese contains jerk braised pork, caramelized bacon onion jam and smoked Gouda.

Crump's Landing is a touristy place, the kind of place I usually avoid. It's crowded at lunchtime and is a popular evening destination for the Homosassa bar crowd. But its location on the water entices with beautiful views and the possibility that manatees might swim over. Try the fish tacos or a burger with a cold beer.

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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