See magical manatees gather in the warm waters of Crystal River, Florida, a nonstop flight away | Entertainment/Life

CRYSTAL RIVER, FLORIDA — Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.

The steady sound of seagrass being nibbled surrounds snorkelers in the turquoise water. But it’s a few more moments before the source of the munching floats into view.

Coming face to snout with an 8- to 12-foot manatee can be both awe-inspiring and a bit startling, as newly minted Floridians DeAnda and Dennis Levine learn on a recent snorkel tour with Crystal River Watersports. In the post-swim slideshow at the outfitter’s headquarters, a manatee bearing a distinctive “X” on his side fills the screen.

“We got to spend some time with this guy. It was really cool. I don’t know how to explain it,” DeAnda Levine says.

“When you’re next to them, they’re total gentle giants, and you’re this close,” Dennis Levine offers, holding a hand just inches in front of his face.

While a much tinier mammal with trademarked ears looms large over the rest of Central Florida, here in Crystal River it’s the manatee that reigns supreme. And viewing season is underway.

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Located about 90 minutes north of Tampa – accessible via several daily nonstop flights from New Orleans – Crystal Springs is the only region in the country where visitors can legally swim with manatees.

Warm springs draw manatees

Located about 90 minutes north of Tampa — accessible via several daily nonstop flights from New Orleans — this spring-fed paradise is the only region in the country where visitors can legally swim with the massive creatures.

From mid-November until late March, hundreds of the sea mammals seek warmth in the fresh, shallow springs and channels dotting the outskirts of this hamlet of 3,000, attracted by the 580 million gallons of crystal clear, 72-degree water that flows from a vast subterranean aquifer daily.

But they’re far from the only natural wonders luring more than 400,000 annual guests to this Citrus County gem.


Paddlers navigate the warm, spring-fed waters of Crystal Rivers.

The 80-acre Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge offers 20 small islands to explore, birding and wildlife watching, and epic paddling opportunities. (Note that craft access is available via city-run launches outside the refuge confines.)

Up to 200-foot visibility in springs and surrounding slow-moving rivers make for excellent diving. And, come summer, the seagrass beds between the Crystal and Homosassa rivers come alive with recreational scallopers on underwater hunts for the tasty mollusks.

Add to that a small but pristine beachfront and quaint downtown historic district packed with boutiques and cafes, and there’s plenty of entertainment in Crystal River for a long weekend — or more.

Winter wonderland

Winter visitors will want to first get the lay of the land and inside intel on the manatees at the newly revamped Three Sisters Springs Visitor Center, named for one of the largest of nearly 300 fonts in the area. Other biggies include Hunters and King’s springs.


Located about 90 minutes north of Tampa – accessible via several daily nonstop flights from New Orleans – Crystal River is the only region in the country where visitors can legally swim with manatees.

Displays explain everything from the region’s unique geology, the ecosystems that sustain the manatees and the surprising physiology of the potato-shaped behemoths. The 1,000-pound herbivores, most closely related to elephants, boast surprisingly little body fat — hence, the heat-seeking. The best days for viewing are when the Gulf waters drop below 68 degrees.

The visitor center also gives guests their best shot at spotting the sea cows by land. A trolley continuously departs for the springs where ranger-guided viewing tours take advantage of an accessible boardwalk that encircles the turquoise pools.

Guided tours allowed

But getting an up close and personal view means slipping into a wet suit and diving right in.

Pursuing, feeding and other interference with the manatees, which are considered a vulnerable species, is strictly prohibited. And guided tours make for some of the best and safest encounters with the gentle giants.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a list of 21 outfitters permitted to operate within the refuge confines, including some where guides actively help conservationists track the health of the local population.

One such guide, Leah Williams of Crystal River Watersports, takes a break from cleaning up after a small group tour to pull up a photo of a manatee calf resting on the chest of another in-water guide. The babies, she says, have the playful nature of a human 5-year-old.

About a decade ago, local guides and residents began in earnest fighting habitat loss and preserving critical food sources for the creatures, efforts that meant laboriously raking away plant-smothering mold. So, while pollutants on Florida’s east coast killed a stunning 1,100 manatees, the Crystal River population has remained healthy and happy.

Even after Williams’ many years in the water, her reverence of Crystal River’s floating celebrities remains as clear as the waters they frequent.

“You have the sweetest, gentlest, wildest of creatures and you’re swimming with them in their home,” she said. “They just look at you and say, ‘Yeah. Let’s hang out.’”


Savor a taste of home at Seafood Seller and Cafe, where Cajun-born Jimmy Stoltz dazzles diners with his massive pet crawfish, magic tricks and impeccably prepared shrimp.

Drop into Vintage on 5th, nestled into Crystal River’s cute downtown, for a bowl of the signature she-crab soup among other high-end fare.

Or grab an inventive and expertly crafted salad or sandwich — among delectable baked goods — at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters.