Crystal River Florida
Crystal River Florida is a coastal city in the western part of the state. It is home to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, where manatees shelter year-round. And manatees were what drew us here. Manatees can also be seen at the nearby Homosassa River, which is generally less crowded with snorkelers and kayakers than the nearby Crystal River. The tour company will go to whichever location has the best opportunity to snorkel with the creatures. We have twice taken snorkel trips out of Crystal River with the tour group Snorkeling with Manatees.
Manatees are large marine mammals that are also known as gentle sea cows. They average ten feet in length and average 1,000 pounds. A few grow to over 12 feet and 3,500 pounds. Man has not been kind to these gentle giants that look like huge, gray potatoes (with a few hairs) with dragging a paddle. Despite several laws protecting these creatures, most have been scarred, and several killed by boat propellers. Meanwhile, climate change and algae blooms (from pesticides and other chemical runoff) are killing the seagrass on which these mammals feed. Conservationists are replanting sea beds with eelgrass and on the East Coast, even harvesting seagrass from other areas and dumping it in feeding areas.
While manatees usually live along ocean or bay shorelines, they cannot survive in water colder than about 68 degrees. During winter, therefore, they often come into freshwater rivers whose waters are warmed by natural springs (such as those in Crystal River) that maintain year-round water temperatures of 72 degrees, or in waters that are warmed by water from shoreline nuclear power plants.
How to Snorkel with the Manatees
The first time we snorkeled with the manatees here, we were allowed to pet and scratch (under their bellies and under their fins) our fill of manatees. Things have changed since that trip 10 years ago. This time the day started off with a mandatory 30-minute orientation before getting in the water. You are no longer allowed to touch them. You are instructed on how to—and especially how not to—interact with the typical shy, but human-accustomed creatures. You then suit up in a wet suit, both to keep you warm and to help you float above the manatees.
Then it is time for the big event.
Up Close with Manatees
We took a pontoon boat to spots at which manatees were feeding or resting. As we gently slipped into the river so as not to disturb them, our guide handed us noodle floating devices, which are also mandatory to keep us floating above the manatees. Our six-person cruise (the maximum on boats from the company we chose) made two manatees stops:
- One where we swam alongside a single mature manatee that was grazing. They spend about 6-8 hours a day consuming about 10 percent of their body weight.
- For the second stop we floated on the surface watching two resting manatees who generally only moved every five or ten minutes. They would rise to the surface to expose only their noses for a breath and then float back down to the bottom. Our highlight was when we caught a sleeping manatee rolling over onto its back and exposing its massive belly. We were lucky as our guide said he had never seen this behavior before.
We then made one additional stop over one of the roughly 100 underwater vents into which underground springs flow into the river. Our guide dove down (no easy trick in a full wetsuit without weights) roughly 10 feet into the vent before surfacing. While we mostly saw small fish at the site, we did see a couple of good-sized large-mouth bass and a few red snappers who, like the manatees, temporarily left their native saltwater habitat for a bit of warmth.
Despite its name, Crystal River is not always crystal. On both trips, some spots were so murky that we couldn’t see anything more than an arm’s length from our faces. But in other spots, we had a better view.
Three Sister Springs
Another location where one can see manatees is nearby Three Sister Springs, where three underwater springs come together to feed the Crystal River. Our tour guide made a stop there on our first trip to the area. The water was so clear that you could see perfectly from one bank to the other, and see fish from 20 feet away. We were lucky to see a mother manatee and her roughly two-year-old calf who had left the sanctuary (where divers are not allowed) and join us in the river. Seeing manatees in clear water was a qualitatively different experience. Overall, however, the combination of both experiences was much greater than either one on its own.
Crystal River Restaurants
- Waterfront Social. We sat at a dockside table for lunch where we shared a very good blackened grouper sandwich with a side of pretty good onion rings. We took a flyer by ordering grilled grouper nachos. While it had nice chunks of grouper, it had way too much cheese sauce for our tastes and not enough pico de gallo or jalapenos.
- Charlie’s Fish House is a large, dockside restaurant that serves low-priced seafood to large numbers of people. We had two main dishes: blackened grouper and broiled (allegedly with garlic butter) frog legs. The grouper was generally good, although Waterfront Social was better. The frog legs were fat and juicy, but watery and without taste. The nice side dishes were baked potato and applesauce. On a previous trip, we also ate some stone crab claws here. The wine selection was very limited: 3 whites, three reds, all available only by the glass. Interesting, they were priced two for one when we were there. Although we just happened to have a bottle of better wine in the car and asked if we could bring it in, a state law prohibits this.
- Crackers Bar and Grill was a pre-dinner stop for a bit of reggae music, a dozen oysters on the half shell and a couple drinks on their outside tiki deck.
- Peck’s Old Port Cove is another waterfront restaurant in neighboring Ozello where we were pleased with the food. Tom had one of the restaurant’s specials—an almond-coated grouper with a cream sauce. Although he did not even consider that it might have been deep-fried, the meal (after removing some of the breading) was delicious. Joyce’s fried oysters on a bun (instead of in a po-boy) were almost as good.