SWIM, KAYAK OR RUB NOSES (THROUGH GLASS) WITH THESE ONCE-ENDANGERED GENTLE GIANTS. YOU’LL FIND THEM WINTERING IN FLORIDA, JUST 6 HOURS FROM ATLANTA.
AS A BOY growing up in Atlanta, my greatest travel fantasies were fueled by my grandparents’ extensive collection of National Geographic magazines. Dazzling photos of wildlife migrations in East Africa, marine life on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and penguin colonies in Antarctica gave way to dreams of adventure that I’m still living out. I never knew there was an equally amazing opportunity less than a six-hour drive from home.
Citrus County, 90 minutes north of Tampa in western Florida, is part of the state’s Nature Coast. Tacky neon and airbrushed tchotchkes are nearly absent here. Fishing, boating, birdwatching and hiking are the most popular pastimes. There’s more wildlife than people, including alligators, deer, opossums, raccoons, turtles, wild pigs and myriad bird species.
But what makes the towns of Crystal River and Homosassa Springs (populations 3,062 and 13,800, respectively) truly unique is that the rivers for which they’re named have white sandy bottoms and year-round temperatures of 72 degrees. Perfect conditions for the planet’s largest annual gathering of West Indian manatees.
More than 6,000 — a record number — were spotted during the state’s annual survey in 2016. It’s the only place in the world where you’re pretty much guaranteed to see these once-endangered, still-vulnerable sea cows in the colder months.
There are three ways to see them, depending on your preferred activity level (and tolerance for cold).
Swimming with the manatees
Citrus County was the first place in Florida to protect its manatee population, one reason that Rodale’s Scuba Diving magazine voted it the best place in the United States to see large animals. Captain Mike’s Swimming With the Manatees snorkeling tours give travelers a chance to get up close and personal with these gentle giants, which can weigh up to 1,300 pounds and measure more than 13 feet long.
Tours cost $65-$99 a person and include masks, snorkels and wetsuits. The semi-private Platinum Tour is longer (five hours) and smaller (two-six people), visits several springs and includes a heated houseboat, snacks and beverages. The heated houseboat is noteworthy because temps during peak manatee season (December-February) often dip into the low 50s.
After watching a brief video on manatee etiquette, you’ll put on a wetsuit, climb aboard and take a 40-minute ride to where the animals often congregate. The guides know some manatees by name, and the friendliest might even swim over to you.
Their massive bodies attract itchy algae, and a cutie named Goofball rubbed against my wife and daughter to scratch himself. It’s an extraordinary experience, and the huge scars we saw underscored just how vulnerable these animals are to life-threatening boat strikes.
Kayaking with the manatees
If slipping into chilly waters with creatures that weigh more than half a ton sounds too adventurous, consider a Crystal River Kayak Co. tour. For $55 per person, you get a kayak (or canoe or stand-up paddle board, if you prefer), paddles, a life vest and a knowledgeable guide who’ll show you the best places to find manatees in the wild.
These tours explore unspoiled Kings Bay, which — as part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge — offers a gorgeous glimpse of Florida as it was before commercialism and overdevelopment moved in. Formed specifically for the protection of the species, the refuge’s countless springs are prime habitat for wintering manatees.
If you choose not to hire a guide, you can rent a kayak or canoe ($35 for two hours in a two-person kayak, $45 for four hours) and explore Kings Bay on your own. Springs such as Idiots Delight, Three Sisters and the King Springs group (which includes Tarpon Hole, Mullet’s Gullet and Little Hidden) are the most popular places for manatees.
You can also find them in the bay itself, occasionally swimming right alongside your boat to get a better look. Curiosity is a defining characteristic of the manatee.
Seeing manatees on solid ground
If water sports aren’t your thing, Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park offers an option for landlubbers. The park, at the headwaters of the Homosassa River, is the only one in Florida devoted to rehabilitating manatees and other native animals.
For nature lovers, the park boasts a boardwalk under a gorgeous green canopy, making for a nice, quiet romantic stroll. There’s wildlife all along the way — black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, American alligators and playful river otters. Animal Encounter programs allow up-close interactions with snakes, opossums and other endemic species.
But the park’s piece de resistance is its underwater observatory, where guests are guaranteed views of manatees and thousands of fish munching away in the crystal-clear, 6-foot-deep spring. It might not be as exciting as swimming with manatees or having them bump up beside you as you paddle, but it’s still a great way to see this remarkable species naturally.
IF YOU GO
- Driving distance: 395 miles (just under 6 hours).
- Getting there: Take I-75 south to Fla. 121 south to U.S. 41 south to U.S. 19 south.
- What it costs: We stayed at the Plantation on Crystal River, where rooms average $135/night. With upscale meals, a three-day weekend for two would cost $750-$1,000.