Is there anything cuter than a manatee? These gentle, smart, curious creatures are sometimes called "sea cows," since, like land cows, they are herbivores content to spend most of their days snacking and hanging out. During the winter especially, herds of manatees flock to the rivers in the towns of Crystal River and Homosassa, Florida, for the warmer, natural- spring-fed waters. Between November and March, there might be hundreds or even up to a thousand manatees in the area; one year, it was determined that one-sixth of Florida's manatee population found their way to the rivers around Crystal River and Homosassa. It's no wonder, then, that this part of Florida is considered the Manatee Capital of the World.
Though manatees are considered a vulnerable species, there are ways to safely interact with them in the wild. Crystal River and Homosassa have pioneered eco-tourism efforts that protect manatee habitats while allowing visitors to encounter them up-close in a safe way. You can snorkel with them, kayak up to them, or simply admire them from the boardwalk of a crystal-clear spring. Here's our guide to spotting sea cows in the Manatee Capital of the World.
If you're not sure where to start when planning your manatee encounter vacation, you can always stop into the Discover Crystal River Visitor Center. It provides a great overview of the hotels, restaurants, activities and attractions available in the area, along with brochures, maps, a gift shop, and more. Feel free to ask the staff any questions; they're more than happy to provide assistance and guidance to visitors.
Three Sisters Springs is a world-renowned sanctuary for the West Indian Manatee during the winter, and offers hiking, kayaking, and tubing during the summer... so there's no bad time to visit. From mid-November through the end of March, the spring fills with dozens of manatees in search of warmer waters. You can admire these gentle giants from the one-quarter-mile boardwalk and viewing platform. The preserve also offers year-round trolley tours (they occur every day during the winter and Friday-Sunday in the summer). During the summer, you're still likely to find manatees in the spring-fed water, and you're able to kayak, canoe, or swim alongside them. Many tour operators offer manatee encounters you can book here. Pro tip: There are no launches at the preserve, but you can put in further up river and float down through the spring.
Since this is Florida, there's no shortage of seafood restaurants in the area; however, few are as delicious as The Crab Plant. This seafood market and eatery is located right on the water, and serves up what locals and visitors alike consider to be some of the best grub in the area. Clams, shrimp, frogs legs, crawfish, gator, lobster, fish, and more appear across the menu in a variety of preparations; the chef makes fried clam strips, shrimp dip, crawfish jambalaya, shrimp and scallop mac 'n' cheese, crab cakes, stuffed crab, and tons more. The low-country boil is the stuff of legend. Pair it all with a cold beer and end with some key lime pie for the perfect meal.
Another must-visit park in Crystal River is Hunter Springs. It's free to visit (parking will cost you, or you can park nearby for free), and is a great place to launch a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard in the summer, or swim with manatees in the winter. It's a quick 20-minute paddle from here to Three Sisters Springs, so if you're looking to go on a self-guided manatee tour, this is a great starting point. There's a sandy beach, and the water is fed by five spring vents, so it’s fresh and clean and perfect for a swim. All in all, it's a great lagoon for an afternoon by the water.
If you're looking for a guided manatee encounter, River Ventures is a great tour operator. The staff offer private and semi-private tours where you can spot manatees from a boat, or swim, snorkel, tube, or paddle with the animals. For comfort, tour on a heated houseboat with all the amenities, or for something more active, take a guided wildlife and manatee paddle. River Ventures also offers airboat tours that take you to waters where dolphins reside. Or, rent your own kayaks, paddle boards, pontoons or houseboats. The captains and guides are pros, and can ensure that no matter what, you have an unforgettable manatee encounter.
For a taste of what Florida looked like centuries ago, you can't beat Crystal River Preserve State Park. It protects a variety of special ecosystems that are unique to the Florida coast, like salt marshes, tidal creeks, mangrove islands, hardwood forests, coastal scrub, and pine flatwoods. The park features 20 miles of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico, and a good portion of the Crystal River, which is a winter destination for manatees. The state park has a great visitor center at the entrance, with a museum and aquariums, as well as a canoe launch. The visitor center is also the starting point for several boat tours, including an eco-tour and a sunset cruise. There are also six nature trails in the park, which also contains the Crystal River Archaeological State Park, a 61-acre Native American ceremonial site comprised of six earthwork mounds. The site was abandoned before Europeans ever arrived in the Western Hemisphere.
A visit to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park gets you a ton of bang for your buck. Included in admission is a guided boat tour along Pepper Creek from the visitor center to the Wildlife Park, as well as access to the Wildlife Park, a one-mile hiking trail, manatee programs at the manatee care center, and more. The Wildlife Park is a sort of zoo that features captive native animals who are, for one reason or another, unable to be returned to the wild. The coolest feature here is the Fish Bowl underwater observatory, which floats in the main spring and provides an underwater view of the spring and the fish and manatees.
For a more unusual wildlife encounter, check out Monkey Island. This island in the middle of the Homosassa River is occupied by an ever-rotating cast of spider monkeys. The Homosassa Riverside Resort is in charge of the care and keeping of these monkeys, and the best view of them comes from the onsite Monkey Bar. Enjoy tacos, seafood, and mac 'n' cheese as you watch the monkeys flit around their island home.
Not to be confused with nearby Three Sisters Springs, which is on the Crystal River, the Seven Sisters Spring is in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The Chassahowitzka River (also known as The Chaz) can be reached just off the canoe launch at the Chassahowitzka River Campground. There are two springs here; one is deeper, the other more shallow, with tunnels in the limestone connecting them. These springs are great for swimming, paddleboarding or boating, as the water is crystal clear.
There's no better place to meet a manatee than the Crystal River area. Whether you kayak alongside them, swim with them, or simply admire them from a boardwalk, it's easy to fall in love with the gentle creatures. Visitors will be struck by the area's love for the unique ecosystems that make up Crystal River and rare wildlife that call it home, and may find a renewed interest in protecting the environment.
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