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  • Lisa Parsons

Crystal River Manatees

Updated: Jan 7, 2019

Small manatee who curiously brushed up against my hand

Crystal River was a place I’d never heard of before. We had family in Crystal River that we thought we’d visit on our way through Florida so we made the side trip to Crystal River. the town is on the west coast of Florida about 75 miles north of Tampa. Through talking with Joel, David’s sister-in-law’s brother, we found out that Crystal River is one of the premier places to see and swim with Manatees. That peaked our curiosity about this place even more.

After a good night’s sleep and a great mt. bike ride in Ocala we arrived in the late afternoon to the Retreat at Crystal Manatee, Joel’s family motel. Driving down the street we saw the giant Bay oaks lining the streets. These giant trees had long strands of Spanish moss hanging from their limbs. They created a beautiful canopy over the retreat. A manatee holding a mailbox marked the entry along with a mural on the wall of a blue manatee.

Giant Bay Oaks Along the Roadways and at The Retreat at Crystal Manatee

We touched base with Joel and then walked down to the water’s edge, which was only a half a block away, to watch the sunset. There was a finger of bay inlet on one side of the street. As we walked down we looked in the water to see the tan colored outlines of a couple of manatee just below the surface. The street ended at King’s Bay Park with a dock that overlooked the bay where we could see small islands, Pete’s Marina, and a Crab Processing Plant. The sun sank as Cormorants flew to roost in a large tree on a small island. It all looked so inviting.

Sunset from King's Bay Park

After a night of sleep we awoke to a cool morning. By 11am it was warming up. We borrowed a couple of kayaks and paddled from the park out to the Three Sisters Springs in search of Manatees.

The manatees in Crystal Bay are the West Indian manatees. They are greyish brown, have skin like an elephant, and can weigh up to 3000 pounds. They are called the sea cows. They are gentle giants that move slowly and gracefully through the water which seems incongruous with their enormous rotund size. They have tiny eyes on the sides of large snouts. They are naturally curios and will actively seek interaction with swimmers.

The manatees in Crystal River migrate or are residents in King’s Bay at the mouth of Crystal River because of the springs that keep the temperature of the water at approximately 72 degrees year round. They seek refuge from the colder waters of the gulf at certain times of year.

Paddling through the open water we saw many gulls, pelicans, cormorants, and white egrets. Fish jumped out of the water as we paddled by. Unfortunately one of the things we noticed is that the shorelines are lined with houses and other development. Turning down the channel to the springs from the main bay we were disappointed that so much development had been allowed to occur. However, hopefully, the positive side of that development is residents that care for and steward the remaining habitat and protect the manatees.

Lots of birds on and around the bay

As we paddled along we immediately started to see the shapes of manatees swimming around us and below us. There were no issues with not seeing manatees. They were everywhere.

There were other people kayaking and tour operators shuttling swimmers in to swim with the manatees. As we got closer to the springs the water clarity improved and we could see more clearly the manatees swimming around us. At the entrance to the springs we encountered, there were buoys and ropes that closed the area to people. Beyond was blue opal colored water that increased in clarity the closer to the source of the springs.

David's video of the manatees

At the Three Sisters Springs we saw many manatees just inside of the closed area. Outside there were others swimming and one very curious and interactive smaller manatee. It swam up to my boat. I put my hand down and it nudged it and I felt it’s tough elephant like skin and saw the detail of its small eyes and snout. Then it dipped down and its tail came up and it moved on to a swimmer who was in the water near me. The swimmer spent quite a bit of time interacting with the manatee. I thought, next time, I’m going to come with a wet suit and a snorkel and spend time in the water.

They are really interesting creatures and I couldn’t help but feel that this interaction between human and wild creature can serve as a connection for us to learn more about the world and the inhabitants that call this our planet home. I am continually amazed by the complexity of life. My understanding of the diversity of species and the web of interconnectedness between all things is continually expanding as I experience exchanges like these.

King's Bay Park

We’ll be back to swim with the manatees but also to spend more time paddling the other waterways and investigating the other birds, animals, and water life in the area. Later that day we were having lunch at a bay side restaurant. We looked up on the roof and it was lined with Pelicans. Below us in the water were 7-8 feet long Tarpons, (a type of fish). Out in the bay pelicans suddenly joined a pod of dolphins fishing in a frenzy at the inlet.

The Retreat at Crystal Manatee was an unexpected stop that we immediately felt connected to through family and a gateway to a rich environment that resides in and along the Crystal River.


The Retreat at Crystal Manatee — Great motel right next to King's Bay Park and access to activities in the area.

Crystal Lodge Dive Center. They have Tours, Kayak, wetsuit, and snorkel gear rental.

American Pro Diving Center. Scuba Diving. There are cave dives in the area

Three Sisters Tour by Boardwalk. View manatees from above in the crystal clear springs.

Citrus County Auduban Birding Tour Maps. Birds, birds, birds. This area is a great place to see many species of birds.

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