Only 999 More to Go!

Well, actually 932. Let me explain: A few years ago, I was browsing books at Barnes & Noble when I came across a thick volume entitled, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

I was intrigued. I considered myself well-traveled. Afterall, I lived in New Zealand for a year and had visited Australia, Fiji, England, Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Thailand, Hong Kong, Chile and many of the islands in the Caribbean. 

As I flipped through the book, I came across all the usual suggestions: Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, Great Wall of China, Easter Island, and the like.

There were just a few suggestions for Florida. Disney World was there, Sawgrass Mills was not. But, one destination that jumped off the pages was Crystal River. Really? What made the spring-fed waters north of Tampa so special?

Because the waters remain a constant temperature year round, they have become haven to hundreds of manatees, especially during the unpredictable winter months.

Crystal River made the list because it is possible to swim with the gregarious creatures.

After diving with reef sharks on the Great Barrier Reef (which also made the cut), I decided this was a must.

My partner and I loaded the car and made the five-hour trip to the town of Crystal River and checked in with our guide. Outfitted with masks and snorkels, we headed to the boat.

Our guide, Dave, took us to a shallow area with plenty of plant life in the water. The polarized lenses in our sunglasses allowed us to make out two dark figures in the water. We climbed in to take a closer look.

To our surprise, we were greeted by two eyes. A young manatee was just as curious and surfaced between the ladder and the hull of the boat.

He (or she) placed its chin on the step and gave himself a chin rub as he stared intently at the strangers just a foot away. We were close enough to notice its eyes seemed almost human, a quality that perhaps led early mariners to mistake manatees for mermaids.

We peted the manatee and then it submerged. Because of the plants, we weren’t quite sure where it had gone. A few moments later, it resurfaced next to me.

I then rubbed the area under its flippers the same way humans tickle each other. Our guide had told us this was a pleasurable sensation for the mammals.

We continued to play with the young manatee for several minutes until its mother’s patience began to wear thin.

She made a clicking sound—that’s the way manatees communicate—and off the pair went, disappearing in the lagoon.

Our captain would take us to other areas of King’s Bay and we would encounter others, most older and bearing the scars left behind by the blades of motorboats.

It’s illegal to “harass” the manatees, but when they approach, that’s okay. We managed to tickle three or four others before the magical afternoon would eventually end.

On the way home, we sighted actual mermaids at the famed Weeki Wachee Springs, but while entertaining, the experience could never rival the opportunity to play with those wonderful creatures mistakenly labeled generations ago as sea cows. Hardly.

—J.W. Arnold




Manatee Tour & Dive

267 NW 3rd St.

Crystal River, FL 34428

Three-hour manatee tours from $49 per person. Scalloping and kayaking tours also available.


Crystal River Watersports

2380 NW US Hwy. 19

Crystal River, FL 34428

Year-round excursions from $55 per person. Scuba and private group tours also available.


River Ventures

498 SE Kings Bay Dr.

Crystal River, FL 34429

Swim with the manatees ($59 per
person) or explore the bay on kayak
or paddle board.