Kayaking with manatees in Crystal River, Florida
“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.
“Cool!” my son said.
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.
(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!)
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.
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.
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.
“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.)
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.