Mermaid Fable in Crystal River
Swim with the gentle giants once mistaken for fishtailed maidens, and discover the Florida spot they call home.
If your cruising itinerary includes Florida’s Big Bend coast, there’s a marvelous experience 70 miles north of Tampa and 6 miles up the Crystal River. The area is a first-magnitude spring system comprising more than 40 bubbling springs that stay a constant 72 degrees all year long and where the largest population of manatees in the U.S. calls home. Can you blame them? Their numbers climb during the winter months when they find shelter from the cold, but a few linger throughout the year. Manatees can be seen in many other places, of course, but this is the only place in North America where swimmers can legally interact with them. That in itself is a compelling reason for a visit, but when you add a stay at Plantation Resort on Crystal River, it propels to the top of the list.
From the Gulf of Mexico, pass through King’s Bay and ease between Parker Island to port and Banana Island to starboard. Just past the gazebo, you’ll find Plantation on Crystal River, which offers visiting mariners resort amenities, a boat ramp, boat rentals, charter options, trailer storage, and a 1,600-foot sea wall for tie-ups outside of guest rooms.
It is advisable to get local information on current depths in the Crystal River area as shoaling is common in the projected six-foot depth of the Salt River that connects with Crystal River. At this juncture is the full-service Twin Rivers Marina. Overhead power lines have a 47-foot vertical clearance here. Shallows are commonplace so depth sounders should be minded especially for boats with more than five-foot drafts. Waiting for half-tide or higher might be recommended in waters before the Crystal River channel. Once within the channel, simply follow the markers—red to starboard, green to port.
Pete’s Pier Marina is the largest marina in Kings Bay and the only transient marina near the village of Crystal River. It has wet slips, cable TV, dry storage, free pump-outs, shower facilities and fuel. An anchorage is available for shallow draft boats north of an island in the middle of Kings Bay harbor. Depth there is six to seven feet at the mean low water.
Several Crystal River dive centers offer manatee swim tours, but the Plantation on Crystal River’s Adventure Center is experienced and is right at the resort. Plantation on Crystal River is a “Southern Manor” nestled within 232 acres of manicured lawns, surrounded by live oaks, palms, and pines. The upscale resort offers 196 renovated guest rooms, suites and golf villas for groups. Its Tiki Bar serves fabulous burgers, and the West 82° Bar and Grill is famous for their grouper and occasionally serves Maine lobster. Two golf courses are just across the street.
My manatee tour started at 7 AM, with fitting of wetsuits, masks, and snorkels, and then we watched a short video on manatee “manners,” aka passive observation: no swim fins are allowed, no splashing or kicking, no chasing, touching, diving, cornering, riding, holding, pinching, poking, or prodding. Only quiet moves are permitted. If, however, a manatee initiates contact, only then is reciprocal contact authorized, and curious manatees do sometimes visit swimmers.
The first stop was in the canal, where our guide disembarked first to look for telltale bubbles, followed by our group of 12. In a slow fade-in, the entire body of a manatee came within a foot of me as his pudgy nose approached the water’s surface. I could have sworn he glanced in my direction as he breathed in the air. It was difficult to maintain my quiet moves.
Our next stop was Hunter Spring and I saw how Crystal River acquired its name. A manatee was nowhere in sight but the swim in crystal clear water was enjoyable. Next was Jurassic Spring, where a spring bubbled from the earth, its opening teeming with mullet, mangrove snapper and snook. My swim-mates and I—a genial group from Hawaii, California, Florida, and North Carolina, (I represented Georgia)—exchanged snorkeling experiences as we chugged complimentary hot coffee and cocoa.
Much too soon we return to the Adventure Center, peeled off our wetsuits and headed to the center to see what our guide captured on his GoPro.
The Kings Bay area is very protective of their manatees. Borders of manatee sanctuaries are guarded by clearly marked buoys, and the sanctuaries are closed to boating, fishing, and swimming from November 15th to March 31st. Nearby Homasassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a refuge for injured or orphaned manatees as well as native Florida wildlife—whooping cranes, red wolves, Key deer, bears, Florida panther, and one hippopotamus who was made a Florida citizen by a former governor. A 20-minute informative and narrated boat ride there carries you to the park entrance.
Since the manatee experience only takes a few hours, there’s time to poke around The Shoppes of Heritage Village, where all manner of manatee souvenirs are found. A few artists’ studios, one filled with Japanese ceramics and handblown glass, sit next to The General Store’s nostalgic candy. I’ve never seen a tidier Army surplus store than Military Outlet on North Citrus Avenue. The Cotton Club sells Brighton charms and fresh produce. Yet, while mementos serve as reminders of swimming with the gentle “sea cows,” there’s nothing quite like swimming in the same water environment as Florida’s gentle native species whose closest relative is the elephant. I’ll be back. I’m sure of it.
Plantation on Crystal River
9301 W. Fort Island Trail
Crystal River, Florida 34429
(352) 795-4211; (800) 632-6262
Pete’s Pier Marina
1 Southwest 1st Place
Crystal River, Fl 34429
Twin Rivers Marina
2880 N. Seabreeze Point
Crystal River, FL 34429
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
4150 S Suncoast Blvd.
Homosassa, FL 34446
The Shoppes of Heritage Village
657 N. Citrus Ave.
Crystal River, FL 34428
Southern Boating Magazine, September 2015