Swimming with wild manatees

Florida’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

They’re like ocean koalas, only bigger. Everybody loves them. Tourists dream about seeing them. And they’re listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, truly a creature we need to protect for future generations.

On a trip to Florida, we sought an opportunity to snorkel with manatees in a wild environment. That led us to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, north of Tampa along the Gulf of Mexico.

Manatees come to Crystal River in the winter months because they can’t tolerate colder waters and can even die from a condition called “cold shock.” This refuge features 307 springs that attract these incredible creatures to a warmer environment and a big supply of sea grasses.

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Photographing manatees underwater was difficult in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, but the memories are better.

Snorkeling with manatees, by the rules

The refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency inside the Department of the Interior. The agency grants permission to qualified outfitters that can lead eco-adventures into the Crystal River refuge. We snorkeled under strict supervision – not following the rules can lead to stiff fines and time served. We chose River Ventures and appreciated their commitment to treating manatees as a precious resource. You can view manatees from kayaks and boats but, under those conditions, the sea mammals look like big grey or brown boulders from the surface. We enjoyed observing them while snorkeling as they fed on grasses, slept on the river’s bottom and surfaced for air.

We also took the Crystal River city trolley tour, which dropped us off at Three Sisters Springs where you can view manatees from a boardwalk in exceptionally clear water. The town of Crystal River, population 3,200, focuses its tourism on manatees, fishing and businesses that support those two attractions.

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We snorkeled with the manatees in December, so wetsuits kept us comfortable.
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We used the boardwalk at Three Sisters Springs to view manatees from the surface.

Crystal River restaurant unrivaled

We stayed in a modest chain hotel. And much to our surprise, we ate dinner at the best seafood restaurant ever: Seafood Seller & Café. The eatery came highly recommended plus its website stated, “Our fish is fresh daily and comes straight off our own boats.” We were titillated! My wife and I are crab cake snobs, rarely satisfied with most offerings, but Seafood Seller rivaled all others. We drooled over our shrimp po’boy, seafood gumbo, crawfish & gator sausage mac and cheese, and the True Southern Grit beer from the local Copp Winery & Brewery. Our server Joy now tops our list of best waitresses. Kudos to owners Jimmy and Sue and their Cajun recipes.

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We admired this osprey in nearby Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge.

Wilderness surrounds Crystal River

While in Crystal River, we also drove north to Cedar Keys and Lower Suwannee national wildlife refuges. We drove through them on a weekday and enjoyed having the refuges all to ourselves. But our big memories will always linger at Crystal River and with its gentle giants. Only 200 manatees existed in Florida in the 1970s. Now, there are 6,620. Let’s hope they continue to make a comeback.

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