After doing some research on the activity, it turns out its a very popular winter activity in Florida. The waters of Crystal River area stay a consistent temperature of 72 degrees year round, so when the Gulf waters dip during the winter months, the manatees flock to the river and become a tourist attraction all on their own. When spring hits, they head back out to the Gulf. The prime manatee season is December-March. Manatees are friendly creatures so there was pictures and photos of tourists snorkeling and scuba diving with them and being able to touch and interact with them. It looked terribly exciting and since we'd be visiting the second to last weekend in March, I figured though there may not be a zillion manatees, we'd at least see quite a few. And snorkeling no matter where is always fun!
The tour left early in the morning so we were up before the sun. The small tour office was only a short drive down the road but we definitely got a little lost with bad GPS address problems. We found it after a few U-Turns and after signing the appropriate waivers, walked down to the dock with Captain Ned and our snorkeling gear. When looking at Crystal River on the map, it is HUGE! and thankfully it looks mostly preserved through the State Park foundation. You could probably spend days upon days exploring all the nooks and crannies in a kayak or other small boat. However, as we were part of a commerical business, we stuck to the public waters and explored all the canals and small waterways off King's Bay looking for the manatees. As all the canals have residences built along them, going in and out of them felt a little invasive but it was a lovely tour overall. Ned though, was not a tour guide. He was a boatman, so we didn't learn much.
After having no success whatsoever in finding the manatees, Ned took us to the entrance to a cove-like place. You could tell it was a popular place to explore as other manatee boats were anchoring at the entrance as well. Seeing as those all had plenty of people on them, I cherished that our tour was private. Ned informed us that if we swam up the little tributary, we'd come to a cove of crystal clear waters that is famous for having upwards of a hundred manatees in it during the prime season. Eager to get in the water and do something, we threw on our fins and goggles and hopped in. In all honesty, it was freezing and I had to force myself in the water. I was hoping that since the outside temperature was about the same, the water would feel warm and I would have no problem jumping in. It did not and I had major problems. But I did it. Anne however, had no problem.
Snorkeling is an interesting watersport to quickly dive into. While fins are the best thing in the world in easing the exertion needed to swim, it certainly takes a moment to accustom yourself to breathing only through your mouth and having your breath be amplified greatly due to your ears being submerged underwater. It took a minute or two for me to feel completely comfortable but the further up the tributary I went, the more natural the breath pattern became. The water was truly crystal clear. Coming from New England where the ocean is as far as you can get from clear, when you get to experience such see-through waters, it's fascinating to behold. You can see straight to the bottom, side to side...all around.
Once we made it to the cove we quickly peeked around for manatees and much to our disappointment, not one was chilling anywhere in the cove. However sad we were though, the cove was a sight in itself. It was serene, with different corners to explore and all sorts of natural aspects to look at. There were tree limbs along the bottom and different areas were deeper than others. There were even bubbles coming out from the floor in one section. Since we hadn't had any manatee luck so far, Anne snapped some great photos of just us under the water which turned out really cool.
Once we'd finished up in the cove, all of us swam back to the boat and tried to warm up as best we could while Ned drove us over to the other side of the bay to continue our search. This side of the bay had less homes along the edge of the water which was lovely but the water was NOT clear. It was murky and brown so when Ned finally spotted a manatee and told us to hop in, I was frightened. Not because of possibly encountering a slimy snake or other aquatic being, but of hitting the manatee head on. When we put our faces under the surface, our visibility was maybe a foot. If the manatee was swimming in our direction we would have no idea it was coming. And Ned was no help; he kept attempting to shout instructions at us that proved increasingly futile. Once he lost sight of it he had us come back to the boat so we could gain a better idea of where Mr. Manatee headed.
By that point I was done in, freezing and shivering, and could not fathom going back in the water again, no matter how much I wanted to interact with Mr. Manatee. Soon after, his backside popped up swimming along the surface; Anne and O eagerly jumped back in while L decided to stay in the boat with me. Anne was determined to touch that manatee if it killed her. From the boat we actually had a good vantage point of where he was and could direct the girls towards him. Ned however, was not good at giving directions, as we had learned the previous time in the water, so we did our best to counter his directions. It was a success! Though brief, and through murky waters, both Anne and O got to touch Mr. Manatee before he swam off for good, bringing an end to our morning escapade at Crystal River.
Looking back, it truly was an awesome morning filled with fun memories and stories to retell over the years even if it wasn't filled with hundreds of manatees. It is something I would definitely want to try again, but next time I'll go in January. Tho there were a lot of people online who said they'd seen lots of manatees as late as the end of March, the winter of 2012 was unseasonably warm so I believe that due to higher temperatures, the manatees went back to the Gulf earlier than normal that year, hence why we had so much trouble scouting one out. But, we did find the one, and Mr. Manatee, well he was a good one.