Hello, my name is Imani, and I love manatees. This is one of many things about me that I attribute to growing up in the Sunshine State.
I recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting Crystal River, Florida to swim with the manatees. Crystal River is the manatee capital of the world, and it’s only a few hours away.
We often associate travel with taking a long flight and getting a new stamp in our passport. That’s great, and I clearly love it, but travel can be as simple and as fun as adventuring closer to home. It really is so much fun to explore your backyard.
Since I’ve been back in the US I’ve been trying to make a concerted effort to explore more of Florida. There’s so much to offer, including lots of fun things to do, drink, and eat in Crystal River.
As I mentioned before I absolutely adore manatees and have always wanted to swim with them. There’s no reason I’ve never done it before in my life, so I resolved to finally make it happen.
Crystal River is a popular spot for manatees because the water in the springs is a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. When temperatures drop in winter manatees seek the warmth of the springs in Crystal River.
For this reason November through March is often regarded as the best time to see the manatees with January and February thought to be the peak.
Once we got into March I knew I had to go soon. I picked my week for a Florida road trip and looked for a manatee tour company.
Based on reviews I chose Bird’s Underwater, and I’m so, so, so glad I did. They have two tours: one at 6 am and one at 11 am. I thought the weather would be cooler and the water clearer earlier in the morning, so I chose the 6:00 tour.
My initial plan was to go on a Tuesday, but it looked like the weather was going to be colder on Thursday: high in the mid-60s, low in the 40s. Colder temperatures mean more manatees moving into the warm springs, so I chose to go on Thursday instead.
I was staying with a friend in Tampa so we got up really early to make the hour and a half drive up to Crystal River.
It was plenty cold and the staff at Bird’s were feeling really good about our prospects for manatee encounters. They said February had been unusually warm, so there hadn’t been a lot of manatees in the springs. This morning would be different.
Boat captain Paul and in-water guide Robbie got us set with everything we needed for our adventure. Included in the price of the of the tour is use of a wetsuit, snorkel mask, floating noodle, and even an in-water beanie to help keep you warm.
After watching a video on the do’s and don’ts of manatee interaction we got on the boat and set out.
On the boat Robbie passed around a box of Dunkin Donuts. I didn’t see a doughnut I wanted so I passed. Big mistake. Robbie and Paul informed us that the doughnuts are good luck for attracting manatees, so I grabbed one and ate a little.
It was about 43 degrees outside, but it felt so much warmer in the water. Those manatees are really onto something.
As soon as we got in the water a manatee swam over to us. You’re not allowed to pursue a manatee, you have to wait for them to come to you, so it was amazing that this happened so quickly.
It seemed like the manatee wanted to play with everyone in our group, so she slowly made her way around to each person.
She floated my way and wrapped her front flippers around me in a giant manatee hug. It was the most magical moment of my life.
I guess that doughnut really worked!
Eating only sea grass manatees don’t hunt and they have no natural predators, so they’re just pure, loving creatures. We need more of them in the world, and thankfully their numbers are slowly rising from near extinction.
We moved from the channel into Three Sisters Springs, where we found even more manatees who came to say hello.
Our guide Robbie kept saying it was the best tour he’s had in five years on the job. There was an abundance of manatees, we got hugs and kisses, the water was incredibly clear, and the six of us were the only people in the springs.
Although the water was 72 degrees the surrounding temperature was still really cold, and I was feeling it. Whenever I took out my snorkel mask my teeth couldn’t stop chattering. I wanted to go back to the boat, but I didn’t want to miss a second with the manatees.
Fortunately the entire group was about to go back, so we started to leave. As we swam out of the springs all of a sudden there were six more boats in the channel and a lot more people swimming.
Bird’s Underwater leaves at 6 am, an hour earlier than the other tours, and it makes a world of difference. The water in the channel was not as clear now as it had been before. I’m so glad we had all that time with just our group.
Back on the boat Captain Paul poured hot water down our wetsuits as soon as we got out of the water, and it felt AMAZING after being so cold.
They have a partition on the boat behind which you can change into dry clothes. Once I changed I was still shivering. The staff at Bird’s is ready with plenty of hot beverages.
I had Captain Paul’s poor man’s mocha, a combination of hot chocolate and coffee, which was so good! They also passed around bottles of hot water to hold to warm up our hands. I put my sneakers on, but for those who were wearing flip flops they poured hot water on their feet.
Bird’s Underwater goes the extra mile with everything. Please don’t even bother using another tour company in Crystal River. Bird’s is definitely the way to go.
Once we got back to the shop we enjoyed just chatting with Paul, Robbie, and Cody. The whole experience was so much fun I didn’t want to leave. They do scalloping trips in the summer, and I definitely want to go back for that.
When looking for recommendations in Crystal River the staff at Bird’s Underwater suggested Burke’s of Ireland. You can find an Irish pub anywhere you go in the world, and Crystal River is no exception.
We sat at the bar in Burke’s and asked James the bartender for recommendations.
I wanted to try a local beer, but the only locals on tap were IPAs. I’m not a big fan of IPAs, so I got an Abita Strawberry.
My friend got the local beer, Citrus Ave IPA. I was curious as to who brews this beer, and James told us it’s Nature Coast Brewing. When I asked where that brewery is he pointed at the door behind us.
What?! If I had known the beer was brewed right there in the pub I would have at least tried it.
It turns out that in addition to being the bartender James is the brewer behind Nature Coast Brewing.
James walked us through the brew process and told us about beers they’re brewing right now. There’s a raspberry blonde ale coming out soon that I want to try.
After getting the lowdown on the beers we had fun just talking to the people in the bar. Everyone knows each other and they all love living in Crystal River. It felt like a nice community.
While in Burke’s we asked around for dinner recommendations. My friend is vegetarian, so multiple people said Bangkok Thai would have the best selection.
Bangkok Thai is in Beverly Hills, Florida, about a 15-minute drive from Crystal River. It’s worth it.
I was tempted by the special of the day, but as soon as someone in Burke’s mentioned Thai food my taste buds were geared up for Pad Thai.
It was sooo good! And our orders came out insanely fast. They give Jimmy John’s a run for their money.
My friend raved about her meal and offered me a taste. I was so enamored with my Pad Thai though that I didn’t have eyes for anything else.
When You Go
- The cost of the manatee tour is $66, and be sure to book in advance.
- The 6 am tour offers the best opportunity for manatee spotting and clear water.
- You’re allowed to take your own pictures if you have an underwater camera, but they also sell pictures from the tour for $35.
- Burke’s of Ireland has a run club every Thursday that meets at 6:00 pm and starts running at 6:30 pm. If you run your second beer is free!
- Burke’s has live music every Thursday at 7:00 pm.
- Bangkok Thai closes at 8:30 pm, so don’t get caught out late without your food.