Swimming with manatees is the first memory I have from the United States.
I arrived here for the first time on a cold late December day three years ago. The next day, Hal was driving me to Crystal River, Florida: one of the main wintering areas for the endangered West Indian Manatee. He told me how swimming with manatees was the best wildlife encounter he had ever experienced and wanted to take me there for my birthday.
A year later we traveled back to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to get married on a boat in Kings Bay, surrounded by the manatees.
Since then, swimming with manatees in January has become an annual ritual and we wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world.
This week, for our fourth visit, we arrived in Crystal River and stayed at the Port Hotel and Marina as usual. If you have read our review of the hotel you already know this place needs some work. That’s why we love it. It is simple, cheap, and has the best views in town. When we arrived, we were happy to see that they are doing some upgrades to the place, like covering the holes in the ceiling and getting rid of the weird smell.
Our visit was shorter and colder than our other visits, but that didn’t take the fun out of it. At a constant water temperature of 72F, a dip in the Three Sisters Springs is always like slipping into another world. The color and clarity of the springs water, the shapes of manatees floating as if there were no gravity, and the silence which is only broken by the squeaks of the babies, makes snorkeling with manatees an experience you’ll never forget. And every visit brings something new.
During my first visit, a manatee grabbed my arm with both of its flippers while studying my face. Last year, a baby manatee decided my feet made an awesome chew toy. This year, while watching a little manatee chewing on a rope, Hal had the pleasure of getting his hand and arm chewed inquisitively.
Eventually, after more than an hour of hanging out with the manatees, our bodies were shivering and we decided to jump in our kayaks to warm up. We didn’t go back to the hotel, we just floated around while a few manatees took turns coming up to see us and pushing our kayaks around while trying to nibble on our tie-off ropes.
During our short trip we have seen lots of wildlife. We really wanted to spot the raccoons that live on Banana Island but we weren’t lucky this time. One of our most exciting wildlife encounters was kayaking with a dolphin and her calf, and later that same day, we watched four dolphins hunting for fish. First a flurry of leaping fish would break the surface, soon followed by four dolphin heads with mouths open trying to snap them up. We were told a couple years ago that there is a family of resident dolphins in Kings Bay. We have seen them each year, but usually very early in the morning and from our hotel room. Getting to kayak near them has been a great experience.
Kings Bay is also a great spot for birdwatchers. Several ospreys hunt all day, groups of grebes and coots are never far away, brown pelicans pester the local fishermen for a cut of the catch and, on the wildlife refuge shores, great blue herons and night herons wait patiently for lunch. And, while snorkeling with the manatees, we watched both cormorants and anhingas chasing fish underwater!
See you next year Crystal River!
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