by Tim M. – (Chicago)
The first thing you should know about a Crystal River Manatee snorkel is that there is nothing particularly crystalline about the Crystal River in Florida. 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 three 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 13 foot, 1500 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.
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Galen & Nicole – Feb 10, 2013 – Funny, Funny Story
Tim, you had us laughing many times. What a great story. It sounds like one of those snorkeling experiences that you will never forget. Here is another post with some info about fresh water snorkeling in Florida.
debbieo – Feb 10, 2013 – More Info Please!
Thanks for posting about Crystal River. That can be an easy destination for me. Did you wear a wetsuit for warmth? Would you mind sharing the name of the company that took you out and your satisfaction with them? I always think of springs as a brrrr swim and I am truly a tropical gal.
Tim M – Feb 10, 2013 – Company and Wet Suit
That particular trip was waaay back in 2002, so I don’t remember who I used. They were on site, with a shack on the water and a dock and a pontoon boat. The manatees were literally a few hundred feet away from the dock.
A wetsuit was part of the rental price, it was probably a 2mm suit, and was fine for the manatee portion of the trip. When we left the confines of the large, lake-like, area behind the shop and went down the house lined canal to the spring, the water was noticeably colder. That’s when we picked up the swimming pace and got more active to stay warm.
2mm is not thick enough once water is getting toward the 60’s. The manatees occasionally go into the clear springs but I’m told that is only in winter when the cool springs are actually warmer than the other parts of Crystal River.
I say just do it. Avoid alligator mating season when the males are aggressive, but other than that, don’t let a little cool water keep you away!
ChristiB – Feb 18, 2013 – Amazing Experience!
My first real snorkel experience (I had one prior, but five minutes in a turbulent ocean in a state of panic doesn’t count) was snorkeling with the manatees in Crystal River. It was a life changing experience that I would repeat again in a heartbeat. I had no difficulty seeing these gentle giants from the area we snorkeled in. This was mid-March of 2010 and the trip was through Sunshine River Tours. I would highly recommend them.