You could tell a `tee was in the vicinity by the muffled shrieks coming from a dozen colorful snorkel tubes sprouting from the water's surface. After a while, from my seat aboard our anchored pontoon, I could actually trace the path of a moving manatee by the sounds and actions of the swimmers as the homely herbivores swam beneath the throng of tourists treading water around Three Sisters Spring. On that first morning of 2013, some 20 "sea cows" were concentrated in the restricted area adjacent to the warm-water upwelling, suspended in a mid-water stupor just out of reach of those swimmers who would stroke the resting manatees had the resident park rangers not been standing watch nearby.
As the early January sun slowly approached its zenith to warm adjacent waters to a comfortable degree, one by one the manatees slowly left the protected area, headed for the open bays along the Crystal River and the nearby Gulf to feed, propelled by broad paddle tails undulating in slow motion to the delight of the giddy, neoprene-clad creatures floating above. If approached by a manatee outside the boundary of the roped-off reserves, swimmers are allowed to reach out and touch; some of the gentle creatures even nuzzle snorkelers who know to float dead still and allow the creatures to literally come face to face with their own reflections in the glass of the rubber masks.
Children were often calmer than their parents as the gentle creatures approached and swam past, and more than one inattentive snorkeler was startled to find a massive manatee directly behind or beneath him as the sea cows gracefully-and in my mind, graciously-made their way through the holiday crowd of colorful on-lookers bobbing on the surface.
It was a novel way to ring in the New Year, aboard a pontoon boat surrounded by manatees and those who come to marvel at them each winter at one of dozens of underwater springs in the Crystal River region of west-central Florida. It's an annual late-autumn-to-early-spring opportunity that attracts thousands of visitors to Citrus County, the only place in the U.S. that allows swimming with the manatees.Vistors hope to see and "be one with" the creatures that hone in on the area's springs to remain comfortable during cold snaps in the constant 72 degree water offer by the subterranean outflows.
Up Close And Personal
Manatee viewing had long been at the top of my bride's bucket list, and when Maria realized she could actually swim with and touch the gentle underwater giants she had admired for most of her life, it was all I could do to get her out of the water long enough to enjoy everything else the region has to offer. In fact, if it were not for the unusually frigid weather ("coldest holidays I can remember!" was a common comment from the thin-skinned locals) forcing my shriveled, shivering wife from the water each day, I doubt we'd have done anything but watch manatees-and those who watched the manatees-during our stay.
Being from the Midwest, where we barely dodged the leading edge of an approaching snow storm when we left home on Boxing Day, the "frigid" 50-degree weather that greeted us as we checked in to the stately Plantation on Crystal River resort seemed downright balmy to us. That said, by week's end as our own blood thinned, we had worn a path in the lush lawn between our suite and the resort's waterfront hot tub. That spa and the adjacent heated pool proved to be popular places for our fellow snowbirds who occupied the sold-out house for the holidays and needed a place to warm up after a day swimming with the transient `tees in their significantly cooler element.
One of the largest, oldest and most popular boat-accessible vacation resorts in the area, the Plantation on Crystal River had come highly recommended and didn't disappoint as the perfect one-stop-shop for vacationing families to enjoy the manatees and other area attractions. The waterfront property offers a marina with dive shop, dive boats, rental gear, boat docks, launch ramp and a fleet of rental pontoons on site, located directly on Kings Bay within sight of one of the area's most popular springs among migrating manatees and those who come to watch them. Guests arriving with their own boats in tow may launch for a one-time-per-stay $10 fee and tie up along the long cement seawall that surrounds most of the sprawling property. Several families, who obviously had stayed there before and knew the drill, occupied ground-level rooms with porches mere steps from their boats, making for easy loading and unloading for the short cruises to popular manatee viewing areas and other sights around Kings Bay.
Follow Our Wake
We rented a pontoon by the day from the resort marina's Plantation Adventure Center ($160-$225), after joining a half-day guided snorkeling trip ($55 w/gear) to get the lay of the water and advice on locating and swimming with the manatees-and associated rules. Boaters, for example, are limited to idle speed only on Kings Bay in the winter months, when the manatees are in residence. In the summer, a 30-acre "play zone" is designated in the bay where boaters may go as fast as 25 mph to enjoy more active watersports, but otherwise it's all a wake-free zone.
As for the manatee viewing, while swimming-or aboard your boat, for that matter-you may not reach out to touch a manatee unless the animal approaches you first, which they will often do if you are patient and remain calm. Chasing, blocking their way, or diving underwater to get a closer look at manatees also is prohibited. In fact, if your head is underwater, using snorkeling or even scuba gear, and you are approached by a manatee, the rules say you must ignore the creature and proceed as if the manatee is not there.
Boat Of Choice
Pontoon boats are by far the most popular craft in the Kings Bay area of the Crystal River, which offers boating atop waters in a protected location more than a dozen miles from the open water of the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the resorts and marinas on the bay rent pontoons to tourists who want to visit the springs, fish or cruise the local waters. We saw some real `beater' rental `toons being used, but the boats offered by the Plantation were well-maintained and seaworthy if some not exactly in "Bristol" condition. As popular rentals, the pontoons get the use and abuse that comes with the trade.
Other amenities offered to active guests at the Plantation-aside from the manatee watching, of course-include an 18-hole championship golf course, large swimming pool, tennis courts and the nicest shuffleboard courts we have had the pleasure of playing, which we do whenever our favorite resort game is an option.
If they'd only light those shuffleboard courts, like they do the fertile waters off the "Gazebo Point" of the waterfront resort, to the delight of guests and local fishermen alike who gather to watch and catch the gamefish that the powerful beam attracts, we'd have a pair of after-dark activities to occupy our time while awaiting another sunrise and chance to witness the daily parade of the manatees!
Tale of Three Sisters
A complex of three springs that feed into Kings Bay, 2.5 miles by water from the Plantation, is the area's most popular manatee viewing area. The trio of springs themselves is accessible only through a shallow inlet so narrow that only swimmers and kayakers can pass. Three Sisters Spring and adjacent waters is one of the most popular gathering places in the region for manatees and their followers. The springs attracted major attention in the early 1970s when oceanographer Jacques Cousteau rescued a manatee trapped in a Miami culvert and released it for rehab in the spring, documenting the process on his popular TV series "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau."
In 2010, the area around Three Sisters Springs was saved from residential development by citizens who fought to place it in public hands. Today, the 57-acre property is owned by the city of Crystal River and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service as part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex (www.fws.gov/crystalriver).
For More Information
Plantation on Crystal River
Plantation Adventure Center
Citrus County Tourism
Manatee Info and Regulations
Florida Manatee Festival
January 18-19, 2014