Crystal River Manatee Snorkel
by Tim M.
The first thing you should know about a Crystal River Manatee snorkel is that there is nothing particularly crystalline about the Crystal River. The springs that feed it, yes, but the main body of water, no.
I took a group of inexperienced coworkers there when we were all working in Tampa. For some of them it may have been their first snorkel ever, and it's pretty intense. The manatee's retreat to the area in winter when they are trying to stay warm, but there is also a year-round population and we were there closer to summer time.
The site is accessed by a pontoon boat though the animals were very close to shore. You are not allowed to approach them, which is fine because in order to do that one would have to be able to see them, and did I mention that the name Crystal River is a misnomer?
So, we slid in the water and were greeted with 3 feet of visibility. I let my hands dangle down in front of me and could just make out my fingertips. This was helpful because without them as a reference there was nothing for my eyes to focus on.
The other disorienting thing is the sound. All you can hear is the manatee chewing on weeds. Sound travels so fast under water that you can't really tell how close they are (it honestly sounds like they are in your skull) and you're almost blind.
And then it happens. You see some motion. It usually ends up being a scar on the animal, and by the time you see it it's practically on top of you. And though you might intellectually know they are big, the magnification underwater makes them look like a mini van. They look like a thirteen foot, fifteen hundred pound swimming mini van. The whole group had numerous close encounters with the animals, often turning around to find them looking at us only a few feet away.
On one occasion I found myself in the middle of a spat between two of them, and as one took off at high speed to avoid the other, I was lifted out of the water as he passed under me. It was an awesome experience.
On a side note, as the boat moved us to the second site (one of the clear water springs) we couldn't help but notice a large alligator on the bank. Of course they're here too. Maybe not for everyone, but everyone said it was a life altering experience.