Swim with Sea Creatures in This Little-Known Florida Town

Don’t worry, it’s not crocodiles or sharks

You can’t swim the length of two pools in the Bay of Crystal River without bumping into a manatee. That’s because this city in Florida is the only place in North America where you can legally (and ethically) swim with arguably one of the cutest marine creatures.

Thanks to the vital winter habitat in these warm southern waters, you’ll find tons of these gigantic gray mammals in Crystal River looking like they’re made of clay with stubby snouts and rotund bodies. It takes some imagination to see the resemblance but the closest living relatives to manatees (so-called sea cows) are actually elephants.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nicknamed the Gem of the Nature Coast Crystal River lives up to its name with aquamarine waters coursing through the area. The warm swamp lands offer lush, green trails through the local state park as well as paddle boating or kayaking on the calm waters of the river.

The quaint river-side city has small-town charm thanks to homes with white-picket-fences and a candy-cane-striped lighthouse on Monkey Island. In the small downtown area at Heritage Village on Citrus Avenue, you’ll find souvenir shops with gator jerky or manatee stuffed animals. That’s also where some of the city’s best restaurants are located offering a mixture of seafood and southern comfort with meals like shrimp and grits for breakfast or Florida lobster next to juicy beef for a surf ‘n turf dinner.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Swim with manatees

Spend the morning floating around in the slow-moving waters of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge from November 15th to March 1st and you’re basically guaranteed to have a face-to-face encounter with a wild manatee. About 400 migrate to these balmy waters every year hence the self-proclaimed title of Manatee Capital of the World.

The docile mammal grazes on water plants (it eats 150 pounds daily!) and won’t be fussed by your presence as long as you remain calm. That could be a challenge as your instinct may be to panic when you realize the massive nine-foot-long object next to you isn’t a rock but an animal.

While you’re not in any danger, raising your voice and splashing around will disturb it. The goal is not to startle the manatee so you can get up close and personal as you watch it glide slowly and elegantly through the water and maximize your time enjoying its squishy features. It’s believed that pirates often mistook West Indian manatees for mermaids as they have such a human-like face.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The gentle giant may swim right up to you and give you a smooch. But don’t be a jerk and try to touch, feed, or harass a manatee. Not only is it unethical to interact with wildlife but the State of Florida and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife laws protect manatees and harassing one can land you with a fine of up to $50,000 and a year in jail.

In fact, with no natural predators, humans are their biggest threat—mostly because of boat collisions. Manatees were one of the original species listed as being threatened with extinction in the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966. By 1991, there were only 1,267 manatees recorded in Florida. Manatees are a conservation success story as they’re now listed as vulnerable instead of endangered and there are at least 6,300 in Florida.

Swimming with manatees is the best way to learn about the animal but if you’re not too keen on being in the water with the creatures you can take a boat tour and see them feeding from the deck. For an overhead view of the manatees, stroll along the elevated 1,300-foot Three Sisters Springs boardwalk.

If you need more ideas, check out: Swim with the Manatees of Florida’s Crystal River

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stroll through ancient sites and wildlife-filled swamps

Swimming with manatees isn’t all there is to do in Crystal River. Go for a hike on the trails of the Crystal River Preserve State Park or rent a bike to ride along the nine-mile route. On the two-and-a-half-mile interpretive trail keep an eye out for raccoons, wild pigs, and turtles as you make your way through meadows, forests of pine trees, and a freshwater marsh. You can also rent a kayak or canoe to cruise around the area’s waterways.

At the National Historic Landmark of Crystal River Archaeological State Park, you could count each of the 51 steps as you climb to the top of enormous temples and burial mounds that overlook the surrounding marshes. Hear where Native American river dwellers buried their dead here and how they used the ceremonial hills or sift through BC arrowheads and pottery in the mid-century modern museum. You could also just basque by wandering the three-quarter mile paved loop weaving past six ancient sites where you can spot osprey, herons, and bald eagles.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Feast on Southern classics and seafood

If all that swimming with sea cows and climbing ancient graves have you feeling hungry enough to peck at some food, Crystal River offers tons of fresh seafood and southern comfort dishes. Dine with the locals at Amy’s On The Avenue for juicy roast beef on a croissant or lump blue crab bisque. Don’t leave without a slice of pie like the Pumpkin Crunch or Key Lime Cake.

At Vintage on 5th choose from southern classics including shrimp and smoked gouda grits, mac and (goat) cheese, or fried green tomatoes with apple-wood bacon. You might not automatically hear those dishes and think wine pairing but you’d be proven wrong by the selection of 25 wines by the glass.

For a quintessential waterfront dining experience, go to West 82 and eat freshly-caught local scallops or Florida beef. If you’re after crab, don’t skip the rustic Pecks Old Port Cove Seafood Restaurant and Blue Crab Farm—go at sunset to see that blood-red Florida sun reflecting off the lake water under the deck.

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to camp near Crystal River

Here are a few RV parks and campgrounds throughout Citrus County to consider for your trip.

Rock Crusher Canyon RV Resort

A beautifully landscaped campground with a swimming pool, playground, fenced-in dog run, and a clubhouse for activities. Rock Crusher offers full hookups with 30- or 50-amp electric which can accommodate up to 40-foot RVs with plenty of room for slide-outs. All sites offer back-in and pull-through availability. They also have elite sites which include beautiful brick paver pads and a shed for extra storage.

Crystal Isles RV Resort

An Encore RV resort, this park offers numerous amenities including a pool, waterfront sites, and on-site laundry. Rent a boat, catch a fish in local streams, or visit nearby King’s Bay to swim with a manatee.

Rousseau RV Resort

Situated on 15 acres shaded by majestic, ancient live oak and cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, many of the sites are generous, and big rigs are welcome.  All sites are full hookups with 30-amp and 50-amp service. 

Nature’s Resort

Situated on the Homosassa River, this 97-acre resort offers RV sites and also cabin rentals. There’s a swimming pool, game room, and access to the Gulf for fishing and boating.

Worth Pondering…

A full-grown manatee which can weigh more than 1,000 pounds looks like the result of a genetic experiment involving a walrus and the Goodyear Blimp.

—Dave Barry