CRYSTAL RIVER, FL — Florida’s manatees may be endangered, but they’re not difficult to find. There are several ways to see a sea cow in central Florida.
Crystal River Manatee Swimming Tours
About 200 manatees (about 10 percent of the total manatee population) spend the winter in Crystal River. Here you will find the largest concentration of manatees in a natural setting, according to the Save the Manatee Club.
Between September and March, the manatees seek the warm, 72- degree springs of King’s Bay. Several companies offer snorkeling tours that allow people to swim with the manatees.
“People come from all over to see the manatees–from Europe, Alaska, Japan,” according to the manager of American Pro Dive in Crystal River. But when the weather is warm, there are no guarantees that visitors will find what they’ve come to see. “We do our best to find them for folks,” he said, “but they’re wild animals.”
Dive shops require snorkelers to follow strict rules about manatee encounters. Nevertheless, Save the Manatee Club doesn’t recommend snorkeling with the manatees because too many people can stress the animals.
“We emphasize education. I tell folks if you don’t obey the rules, you’re out of the water. If the choice is between not seeing manatees and swimming after them (which is considered harassment), we’re not going to see them.”
“Manatees are the most important things in this bay,” the manager said. “We’re here to make money, but not at the expense of the thing that’s going to make us money.”
American Pro Dive offers snorkeling tours of King’s Bay as well as tours of Homosassa River. The trips include fins, snorkel, mask and wetsuit. Reservations are usually necessary.Call ahead to find out whether manatee sightings are likely: 1-800-291-DIVE (3483) or 1-352-563-0041.
The Crystal Lodge Dive Center offers manatee snorkel tours for $15 per person. Call (352) 795-6798.
Plantation Inn Dive Shop offers 3 hour snorkel tours for $30 per person, excluding equipment. River tours are $15. Boat rentals also available. Call (352) 795-5797.
For a free look at the manatees at King’s Bay, stop at the Spring Run Bridge. From Highway 19 going south, turn right (west) on King’s Bay Drive at Barnett Bank. Follow King’s Bay Drive to the bridge.
Homosassa Springs Manatee Viewing
Homosassa Springs offers a great way to see manatees in a near natural setting. The underwater observatory floats above the main spring boil, and manatees frequently approach the glass to greet visitors.
“We call it the Peoplebowl,” said Susan Dougherty, the park spokesperson. “They’re looking at us just like we’re looking at them. It just depends on what side of the glass you’re on.”
The state park serves as a halfway home for sick and injured manatees, many of which will eventually be released into the wild. There are currently 12 manatees in the park.
Homosassa Springs also provides a home to a variety of native wildlife, including a variety of birds, black bears, alligators, crocodiles and snakes. Animal shows are scheduled throughout the day. Manatee programs are offered daily at 11:30, 1:45 and 4:15.
Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park is located at 9225 W. Fishbowl Drive, 3/4 mile west of U.S. 19 in Homosassa Springs. From Ocala, take Hwy. 200 south to 491 south to 490 west. The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The entrance fee is $13 for adults, $5.00 for children ages 6-12. For information, call (352) 628-5343.
Manatee Springs State Park
Manatee Springs is the first feeding area for manatees coming up the Suwannee River from the Gulf of Mexico. More than 200 manatee sightings were recorded at the park last year, most of them during winter and spring.
When a manatee arrives, no one is allowed to swim in the spring run. “It turns into full sanctuary,” said Ranger Phillip Gerhardt. “We want to give them a calm, peaceful place. Because of that, some of the manatees that aren’t used to people come and visit us.”
Manatee Springs State Park is located just north of Chiefland on US 19. From Ocala, take Highway 27 north to Alt 27 north. 100 campsites are available. Ranger-led programs include hikes, wagon rides and video presentations. The park is open 8 a.m. until sundown. Entrance fees is $6.00 per vehicle, $4.00 for single occupant vehicles. Campsites cost $20 per site, including electricity. For information, call (352) 493-6072.
Blue Spring State Park
Blue Spring State Park was established in 1972 to protect the St. Johns River manatees. In the early 1970s, only six or eight manatees visited the spring, according to park officials. Now about 75 manatees visit in the winter.
Blue Spring is one of Florida’s first-magnitude springs, and it produces up to 100 million gallons of water a day. Raised boardwalks follow the spring run and offer a good view of the animals. The spring itself is crystal clear and framed by lush vegetation.
Power boats are banned in the spring run, and canoes are also prohibited in the winter. Swimming with the manatees is not allowed.
Blue Spring State Park is located near Orange City. From Ocala, take Highway 40 to Barberville, then Highway 17 south to Orange City. The park is open 8 a.m. to sundown. Entrance fee is $3.25 per vehicle. Overnight cabins cost $55 a night. Forty-five campsites are also available. For information, call (904) 775-3663.
Sea World Manatee Exhibit
To years ago, Sea World opened a unique 3 1/2-acre manatee habitat called “Manatees: The Last Generation?” The educational program is probably the best in Florida, and it offers both above and below-the-water views of the manatees.
Seven animals are currently on display in the 300,000-gallon aquarium. The animals here are being rehabilitated, and the number varies as recuperated animals are released into the wild.
A “Behind the Scenes” tour (an additional $5.95 for adults and $4.95 for children) takes visitors through Sea World’s rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned manatees. More than a dozen manatees are usually in the program, including several calves. The tour also includes a look at rehabilitating birds, dolphins and sea turtles.
Sea World is located at the junction of I-4 and SR 528 in Orlando. General admission is $31.95, and $27.95 for children ages 3-9. For information, call (904) 351-3600
Other Manatee Sighting Options:
Manatees can be seen in both shallow and deep-water habitats at the Lowry Park Zoo. It’s located at 7530 North Blvd. in Tampa. Admission is $5.50 for adults and $3.50 for children ages 4-12.
Tampa Electric Company’s Big Bend Manatee Walk is a free boardwalk viewing area open to the public during the winter. It’s located south of Tampa off Interstate 75 and US 41 near Apollo Beach. For information, call (813) 228-4289.
Epcot Center’s Living Seas shows off manatees year-round. Tickets cost $35.90 for adults and $28.50 for children ages 3-9. For information, call (407) 560-6365.