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Kayaking with manatees in Crystal River, Florida

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Kayaking with manatees in Crystal River, Florida
Florida manatees are considered endangered by both the state of Florida and the federal Endangered Species Act. Sadly, 829 manatees, or 16% of their population, died in 2013.

A manatee in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, one place where you can travel to see Florida manatees in their natural habitat

“I think I just saw a manatee,” my husband said.

“Aw!” said my 7-year-old son. “I want to see one.”

There were seven of us family members recently kayaking in Kings Bay, a wintertime manatee hangout in Crystal River, Florida. My husband and I had been here years ago — before children — and were back again acting as pseudo ecotour guides for our family to have a true Florida experience.

Soon my 7-year-old and I saw a swirl on the surface of the water near the stern of our tandem kayak, and up out of the water came a three-foot manatee tail, nearly splashing us.

Be careful when kayaking, paddleboarding or swimming with manatees and give them the space they need to rest, eat, travel and care for their young

Be careful when kayaking, paddleboarding or swimming with manatees and give them the space they need to rest, eat, travel and care for their young

“Cool!” my son said.

Kings Bay, part of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, is home to a floating manatee information station

Kings Bay, part of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, is home to a floating manatee information station

We all gently paddled our kayaks near the roped-off manatee-only area of King Spring, south of Banana Island in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Soon we would see a roundish gray shape just under the surface, and then a snout would appear yards away. We would see what looked like a small group of manatees swimming together. Our family couldn’t believe how easy it was for us to find manatees.

Cool weather is the perfect time to see manatees in Florida, when they come to inland waters to get warm

Cool weather is the perfect time to see manatees in Florida, when they come to inland waters to get warm

(Later in the week, we saw an aerial photo of the exact spot we were in, with 387 manatees counted in King Spring. We had no idea there were actually that many right next to us!)

You might see a manatee tracking device floating on the surface of the water, which indicates a manatee below

You might see a manatee tracking device floating on the surface of the water, which indicates a manatee below

Seeing these endangered manatees in Kings Bay was exciting. But the rest of our family didn’t know what was yet to come.

Three Sisters Springs

We kayaked west around Banana Island and north to get to Three Sisters Springs, an even more popular place for viewing manatees in the wild because the springs’ water is so clear and shallow that you get an even better view of the endangered marine mammals. Gliding past homes whose yards back up to the river — essentially, a canal — we wound our way to the spring head.

On the way to Three Sisters Springs, you will pass by homes where people understand the importance of protecting endangered manatees -- and share a little humor about it

On the way to Three Sisters Springs, you will pass by homes where people understand the importance of protecting endangered manatees -- and share a little humor about it

You know you’ve reached the right place when you see tour boats and crowds of people in and on the water. The Three Sisters Springs area draws not only kayakers, but snorkelers, paddleboarders and tourists who arrive by rental or tour boat.

Three Sisters Springs draw crowds of people during cooler weather, when manatees flock to the springs' water to keep warm

Three Sisters Springs draw crowds of people during cooler weather, when manatees flock to the springs' water to keep warm

As we approached the crowd, we tried to find some room to rest the kayaks at least long enough to take pictures of the gray, lumpy, rock-like shapes in the clear water below us.

Many manatees rest in roped-off areas of springs in the wildlife refuge to get a break from curious people

Those aren't large rocks in the water! Many manatees rest in roped-off areas of springs in the wildlife refuge to get a break from curious people

“Look at all the manatees!” my 4-year-old son said.

Our other family members were amazed by the sight, too.

It was easier to see the manatees in and near Three Sisters Springs. But most of the manatees stayed in the roped-off areas, where people aren’t allowed. Some manatees ventured between and under boats, setting the snorkelers off in their direction and bringing out the cameras pointed wherever the manatees were going. You get the impression that if it weren’t for the roped-off areas, manatees wouldn’t get a break from us human visitors.

Two volunteers in bright vests were there to make sure the crowd minded their “manatee manners” and followed federal regulations for interacting with the manatees, which are on the U.S. endangered species list. The feds would love to make stricter rules about access to the springs and to manatees; the city of Crystal River wants to preserve private property rights and keep an estimated $30 million manatee-driven boost to the local economy. Federal laws currently allow passive but close observation of manatees. (This is different from many other endangered species. For example, the law requires everyone to stay 500 yards away from right whales. When the American bald eagle was considered endangered, you couldn’t come within several hundred feet of its nests.)

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge volunteers watch out for the manatees, especially around Three Sisters Springs where people can crowd the manatees

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge volunteers watch out for the manatees, especially around Three Sisters Springs where people can crowd the manatees

“You can go on into the spring that way,” one of the volunteers said to us, “but I don’t think there are any manatees back there right now. If you haven’t been yet, you really should see it. It’s beautiful.”

So, carefully, without bumping into any snorkelers or paddling over any manatees, our family squeezed our kayaks past poles (to keep out larger craft) into a narrow spring run to see the spring heads of the Three Sisters.

Three Sisters Spring is beautifully clear, accessible by water

Three Sisters Spring is beautifully clear, accessible by water

Once you are in the spring head area, it’s a different world. The water is the color of an aquamarine gemstone. You can see the subtle ripples where fresh water bubbles from underground, creating the spring. All around are trees — no view of the tour boats or houses from here. Even though the manatees were congregating elsewhere during our visit, it was more than enough to just float in the kayak and breathe.

The Three Sisters Springs area is so naturally beautiful and peaceful

The Three Sisters Springs area is so naturally beautiful and peaceful

No wonder the manatees love coming here.

Sanctuary and Survival

Not only is Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge insanely beautiful, but it gives manatees what they really need in the winter — a warm-water sanctuary. Manatees can die from cold stress, despite how plump and, let’s say, well-insulated they appear. The springs pump out 72-degree water year round, giving the mammals a warm home during cool months. In Florida, manatees wander the ocean and rivers for most of the year, and you might see one turn up near a dock or in a marina. When the ocean turns cool (generally from November through March), manatees need to find warmer water to survive.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect manatee habitat and includes springs and islands

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect manatee habitat and includes springs and islands

Survival is essential for wildlife on the endangered species list. The state estimates there are 3,000-5,000 Florida manatees, and this count fluctuates each year. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) records how many manatees die each year, and why. The number is usually around 300 each year. So when my husband told me he heard on the news that 800 manatees died in Florida last year, I couldn’t believe him. I thought there must be some mistake. Unfortunately, it was true — 829 manatees died in 2013. A staggering number. The FWC said the biggest reason was Gulf of Mexico red tide in Lee County and other parts of southwestern Florida, and something in the water in Indian River Lagoon on the Atlantic side of the state that is killing not only manatees but dolphins and sea turtles too.

Manatees also die or become severely injured when they get hit by boats. Even though manatees can be 10-13 feet long, weigh 1,000-1,300 pounds+ and have no predators, they are extremely slow and docile. This makes fast-moving watercraft a danger to them. The FWC estimates 25-30% of manatee deaths each year are caused by boat strikes.

Besides the cold, the polluted water and the boats, manatees are also affected by habitat loss like wildlife everywhere. Manatees mainly eat seagrasses and other coastal vegetation. When that food dies due to pollution, or gets trampled, or gets destroyed due to development, then manatees have less food to eat.

The manatees we kayaked alongside were nothing short of survivors. Our family was so happy to get the chance to see them in their natural habitat.

Go Visit the Manatees

If you want to visit the manatees in Crystal River, time your visit between mid-November and the end of March. Some winters are cooler than others, and water temperature can make a difference in how long manatees stay around the springs.

There are several manatee tours that take visitors to the springs to view and snorkel with the manatees. Check with the Citrus County Visitors and Convention Bureau for a list.

If you have your own kayak, you can launch from Crystal River city parks like Kings Bay Park and Hunter Springs Park.

You can also rent a kayak or motorboat from local marinas.

Our family launched from the marina and dive shop at Plantation on Crystal River, a resort right on the water. There, you can rent kayaks, canoes, jon boats and pontoon boats, and buy inexpensive laminated maps of the area waterways. The dive shop provides scuba instruction and scuba/snorkel equipment.

Plantation on Crystal River is a nice resort with a marina where you can launch a manatee kayaking trip

Plantation on Crystal River is a nice resort with a marina where you can launch a manatee kayaking trip

The Plantation marina and dive shop manager told us we’d need to view the new “manatee manners” videos produced by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2013. We were able to watch the 10-minute video right in the shop. However, if you aren’t using a marina’s services, you can watch the video at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge site before your trip.

Before going out on the water to view manatees in their habitat, you have to learn manatee manners

Before going out on the water to view manatees in their habitat, you have to learn manatee manners

Our family also stayed at the Plantation resort and were happy with the rooms, parking and restaurant. As guests, there was no fee for us to launch our own kayaks.

Plantation on Crystal River has a river-side pool

Plantation on Crystal River has a river-side pool

Poolside at Plantation on Crystal River, choose sunshine -- or the shade of a gazebo

Poolside at Plantation on Crystal River, choose sunshine -- or the shade of a gazebo

The common areas at Plantation on Crystal River are cozy and very "Florida"

The common areas at Plantation on Crystal River are cozy and filled with Florida art

If you want a true Florida experience that gets your family outdoors and close to nature, kayaking with manatees is one perfect way to do it.

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My family’s trip to Crystal River was a trip we made on our own and was not part of a review or paid program.

  1. Awesome pictures. Doing something like this can be a once in a lifetime experience. Thank you for sharing it.

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