I’m not a big planner. I prefer to make spur-of-the-moment decisions, so when my husband had to work in Crystal River for a few days, I decided to take the kids and join him. I knew we would have fun lounging at the pool and hoped we would get to swim with the manatees. What I didn’t realize was what an incredible learning experience it would be.
WHERE TO STAY
Since I’ve been labeled the “hotel snob” by my family, I’m not ashamed to say that the typical discount hotel my husband opts for on work trips was not where we were going to be staying. Even though he insisted there wasn’t much luxury in the little town of Crystal River, I proved him wrong when I found the Plantation on Crystal River. It looked like the only resort in town, in a great location, with a beautiful pool, restaurants and a golf course to boot. Bonus: The resort has its own marina and dive shop, so we could easily schedule a manatee boat tour.
We had to get up extremely early to make it to the Adventure Center at 7:30 a.m. for our manatee pontoon boat tour. That’s crazy early for a mom with a toddler and a grade-school boy who both have to get dressed and eat before we head out. Trust me, it was worth it! We were greeted by Captain Sandman. He quickly got us outfitted in wet suits so we would be comfortable in the 72-degree spring water. Then, we watched an informative video on the Florida manatees. They are federally protected animals, so there are a lot of rules on how humans are able to observe and interact with them in the wild.
Next, we were on the boat heading to the famous Kings Bay (only a few minutes by pontoon boat from the Plantation). Captain Sandman was a wealth of information regarding the manatees. He talked extensively about why they are protected, how important it is for tourists to obey the rules of engagement, and everything else about the cute little sea cows — like their preferred habitat, migration rituals and curious personalities.
I was a little anxious about getting in the water with my son, Kai, who is a mediocre swimmer. And he was donning fins, snorkel gear and a wet suit for his first time. Thankfully, the wet suit provided buoyancy, which was a help, but we quickly had to replace the mask and snorkel with regular goggles (thank goodness I brought those!). It was just too much for him to try to figure out while in deep water.
Captain Sandman mentioned that a manatee boat tour is not a good time to try to snorkel for the first time. He also frequently mentioned that to invite a manatee encounter, you must be quiet and swim horizontally — with your feet and head up toward the surface of the water. I thought for sure that this was not going to go well. You see, my son is one of the loudest kids I know, and he only swims vertically — with his head above water and his feet toward the bottom. (I know, I know, he needs more swim lessons.)
But to my surprise, he did everything exactly the way he was instructed. It was amazing! It was like seeing a whole new side to my child. He was listening, engaged, and following directions and swimming horizontally! So, he had manatees swimming up to him constantly. The first one that came up to see him was a baby. He was very playful and kept rolling on his back, so Kai and Captain Sandman could rub his belly. His mother was close by our boat, and the baby would frequently go over to her to nurse. Yes, I saw a wild baby manatee nursing right next to our boat! After that, another adult female came up to say hello. She kept getting chased away by two males that were pursuing her. Later, we saw a few others that were relaxing in protected areas.
We soon moved on to the Three Sisters Springs, which had crystal clear shallow water and was beautiful. We were able to see the leftover fences from where Jacques Cousteau had created a manatee hospital years ago. Kai was able to try out the snorkel again there to get a little more practice. Apparently, in the winter, the manatees all flock to the small Three Sisters Springs area, as that is the warmest area of water that time of year.
I can’t speak highly enough about the amazing educational experience that we had. The combination of the informative video, knowledgeable captain and hands-on interaction with these large, but gentle, mammals was a real learning moment for my son. I highly recommend this trip, as it’s not far from Orlando, moderately priced and so darn exciting! It was just one of those moments with nature that humble you, inspire you and connect you to this beautiful planet that we all share.