High on my travel bucket list, somewhere between “explore Nepal” and “eat my face off in China” lay this little gem: See a manatee. That’s right. “See” one, not “swim” with one. That’s because even though manatees are gigantic, slow-moving, and apparently cruising through Florida waterways on a regular basis, I have yet to spy even a gray glimpse of one. I wouldn’t dare hope for anything more than a peep. Interacting with a sea cow? Now that would just be crazy talk. Or so I thought.
Cue Crystal River, Florida … and the birth of Ayaz. I’d long known about Crystal River, located an hour and a half north of Tampa, it’s one of very few places where it’s possible to swim and interact with the lumbering beasts in a sustainable manner. But I could never quiet figure out when I’d find myself in the Tampa area. And then, yet another dream of mine came to fruition: the world’s largest RV show would be held in Tampa in January. A week after Ayaz’s birthday.
RVs AND manatees? A birthday road trip to see both? Crikey!
But that wasn’t all. The great manatee god in the sky smiled upon me. A Travelzoo deal for a hotel in Crystal River landed in my inbox. And so, a plan was born.
If you, too, want to dive into the abyss with a 2,000-lb. creature that looks like a cross between a hippo and a slightly hairy alien with horse teeth, here’s how to plan your dream trip:
Where to Swim With Manatees
Crystal River, natch. There is an abundance of regional outfitters offering tours that allow visitors to swim with the creatures, and it can be overwhelming to select one. I opted to use the Plantation Adventure Center, which is affiliated with the Plantation on Crystal River, the hotel featured in my Travelzoo deal.
The hotel and dive shop are located directly on a waterway, so you don’t have to travel far for your ungodly early 7 am boat tour (early bird catches the manatee sighting, it turns out). When you’re not chilling with the manatees, you can enjoy the hotel’s pool and hot tub, eat at the (somewhat middling) restaurant, hit the golf course, or stroll the waterfront looking for manatees swimming past the property.
How to Swim With a Manatee
Crystal River is a manatee mecca thanks to the natural springs that dot the area’s waterways. The warm water is like manatee crack, they congregate in droves around the springs during chilly weather. Of course, this means that the best time to see them is during cooler months, like January and February, when they’re seeking warmth.
This also means that I got my rear out of bed in 45-degree weather, slithered into a wetsuit and jumped into 72-degree water which actually feels pretty darn cold at 8 am on a cloudy, January day. But I ask, what price a manatee sighting?
We made our way to the dive shop, where we were given wet suits and snorkel gear, and watched a video about how to swim with manatees in a way that doesn’t completely freak the big guys out. After that, we hopped aboard a boat with highly capable Captain Mike.
The man was a manatee whisperer. In fact, he sort of looked like a manatee, large and a bit lumpy, and the sea cows positively loved to swim up to him and chew on his beard. However, he was also a phenomenal guide, and gave us further detailed instructions and guidance, and made sure each person had a chance to get up close and personal with the manatees.
So, What’s it Like?
Otherworldly. There are few experiences that compare to a monstrous beast slowly swimming up in your grill and gently pawing at you with giant flippers. When they’re excited, they begin to spin around like a corkscrew. One even sidled alongside me, and nudged me along for a few dozen yards as I lay paralyzed, trying not to break our bonding moment. They really are as magical, strange, and gentle as you would hope. Like sea puppies.
Making the Most of Crystal River
Now, Crystal River is a bit of a one-manatee town. There’s not a whole heck of a lot going on beyond manatee tours, but man, did I eat some killer food.
Much to my surprise, one of the best Cajun meals I’ve ever had the pleasure of guzzling down can be found inside the Crystal River Mall at Seafood Seller & Cafe. We gorged on perfectly spiced gumbo and a heaping pile of steamed shrimp in juices that came straight from the Creole heavens.
After you’ve had your manatee swim, consider a side trip 30 minutes south to check out the Weeki Watchee Mermaids, one of Florida’s most old-school odes to 1950s kitsch.
What About That RV Show?
OMG. The RVs. It was amazing, and overwhelming and all my Barbie RV fantasies came true. By God, I WILL live in an RV someday, oh yes I will!