February 2008: One of my quests in life is to swim with as many marine mammals as possible and the cute, rolley polley manatee was high on my list. To see manatees in the wild, there is no better place than Central Florida in winter, where manatees congregate in the freshwater springs. During this time, the ocean is colder than the more temperature regulated spring water and manatees swim inland up rivers to access the springs where they congregate to stay warm during winter and to eat various plants growing in the springs. To swim with manatees, I cashed in some airline miles and flew out to Florida for a weekend trip with the goal of visiting Crystal Springs and Homosassa Springs to find the manatees.

I flew into Tampa Bay, rented a car and immediately drove north to Fort Cooper State Park, where I camped in a wild campsite for two nights alone on a lake where the United States government fought the Seminole Indians in the 2nd Seminole War from 1835-1842. Even though I was in Florida, it was freezing outside, and I kept a warm bonfire burning all night with a big heap of firewood to keep me warm in my tent.

 

Fort Cooper State Park/view from my campsite

The next morning, I drove to Crystal River and snorkeled with dozens of lazy manatees. Crystal River is a guaranteed spot to see manatees, but the river passes in between residential neighborhoods and isn’t very wild. There are also areas that are roped off for manatees and neighborhood watchers keep an eye on snorkelers to ensure they separate themselves from the manatees.

After an hour with the manatees, I went scuba diving in nearby Rainbow River, one of the highlights of my trip. The crystal-clear water is only about 30 feet deep but has perfect visibility, small limestone caves at the bottom to explore and huge prehistoric looking Alligator Guar Fish that swim right up next to you. I was unable to get a good photo since my underwater camera was only rated to 5′ of depth and the guar mostly stay at the river bottom. I also visited Devil’s Den Cavern, a small underground cave springs which is really nice for snorkeling.

Crystal River Manatee

Rainbow River

Devils Den Cave Springs

On my last day in Florida, I packed up my tent and drove to Homosassa River before sunrise to catch the first boat out to the outer springs where the manatees congregate. This was the wild place where I hoped to see the manatees. Homosassa River has natural springs that are part of athe river but unlike Crystal River it is forested and kept wild and there are no residential houses in the area. With only a handful of other tourists, the boat took us out to the outer springs where a dozen manatees where lounging about on the surface of the water, and the boat captain simply said go ahead and jump in. There were no rules and no other boats or swimmers. This was exactly the experience I had hoped for. I jumped in the water, which was steaming in the cold morning air, and it was a lot murkier than Crystal River and the thought of alligators which also inhabit these waters occurred to me. But no time to worry about that there were manatees all around me. I didn’t need to approach them. As soon as I entered the water, they approached me and were very curious. One of them came right up to me and I started scratching his belly and he rolled over like a big puppy dog. It was ana amazing experience spending about an hour just floating around with manatees who as long as you are not aggressive with them will curiously investigate and approach you. After visiting Homosassa River, I raced back to Tampa airport and flew home.

friendly manatee eating plants off a rope connected to our boats anchor- Homosassa River

Eye to Eye with a manatee

Snorkeling with manatees floating on the surface of the water in Homosassa River with morning mist rising from cold early morning waters

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