By Michelle Colesanti
What makes Crystal River special is that it is the only place where you can legally swim with the manatees. Each year from November through March, people from around the world are drawn to the 72-degree waters, no matter the air temperature, to get the chance to swim with these endangered creatures that are just as curious about us as we are of them.
Less than two hours from our area, the Plantation on Crystal River features a full-service family-oriented dive and tour operation marina. If you are staying at the resort and plan to swim with the manatees, it’s only a short walk from your room to the marina.
My son Philip and I spent some quality time together just after Thanksgiving at the Plantation, where we got to swim with the gentle giants.
The best trips start early in the day because that is when most of the manatees will spend their time in the warmer waters. Although there are some year round manatee residents, most gravitate to Crystal River when the gulf temperature drops below 68 degrees. They are similar to humans in that they can get hyperthermia when their body temperature drops for an extended period of time. We woke up that morning to an air temperature of 32 degrees, the coldest of the season.
Always one to wear sweaters and feel chilled when others are in shorts and t-shirts, the thought of getting into the water was quite prohibitive. A love for nature and the manatees kept me on task.
For $55, wet suits and snorkel equipment are provided along with the swim. Before leaving, a short video is shown about manatees and what the rules are for swimming and snorkeling with them. Our guide, Captain Jeff Sandmann said, “These guided trips are allowed in the hope that the public will become educated as to the importance of preserving these animals.” Not bothering sleeping manatees or those nursing their young are two of the rules that you must abide by when encountering the manatees or you could be severely fined. If they come to you, you can then gently touch them.
During the colder weather, the boats have plastic covering to help keep in some heat and keep the cold winds out. We quickly reached the first swim spot, and slipped into the water, and surprisingly it was very comfortable. We stayed in the one area for about 45 minutes. In this spot, the manatees were very sociable, and if you are still and keep splash to a minimum, they will come to you. I had a few start swimming beside me and under me. One came up by my side and shared eye contact. I could hear the high pitch sound they make, so I imagine it might have been trying to communicate. What a thrill! Admittedly, I did try to talk back, which must have worked, because the manatee rolled over so that I could pet its stomach, then rolled back for a back pat. It’s pretty incredible to have a 1,000-2,000 lb. animal gently spend some time with you.
Our second stop was at Three Sisters Springs, which is one of the most important natural warm-water refuges for the manatee. In this protected area, we encountered groups of manatee resting and sleeping. The water was clearer in this spot than in the first spot, so we could also enjoy watching the fish as we snorkeled.
Staying at the Plantation on Crystal River was a great choice for this swim adventure. The resort has been recently refurbished, and the rooms and suites offer wireless internet, flat screen TVs, refrigerators and more. The old southern flair was charming and reminiscent of bygone years. The Plantation is eco-friendly and is a green lodging-certified resort.
Winter is best for swimming with the manatees, but there is plenty to do year round. From July 1 through mid-September, it’s scallop season. Snorkel for scallops and then have them prepared fresh by the chef.
There are 27 holes of challenging fairways for golfers. Year round, you can rent a kayak or boat to explore the waterways. You can dive in the springs and underwater caverns with a guide, a heated pool with Tiki Bar is open year round and a full service spa is available.
It’s not necessary to leave the premises for meals because one of the best restaurants in Crystal River is at the Plantation, The West 82° Bar and Grill. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. We enjoyed dinner, where featured specialties such as Mahi Mahi, Grouper, Shrimp with Grits and more were offered. A Sunday brunch, with choices ranging from breakfast favorites such as fresh-made omelets to salads, shrimp, fish, chicken and enough choices for the entire family to find their favorites to enjoy. The Plantation is also a great place for meetings, retreats, family reunions and weddings. A beautiful gazebo on the grounds is a great spot to hold a wedding ceremony, and there is 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space.
If you are looking for a great weekend getaway, the Plantation offers a special package where you get to swim with the manatees and fully experience the resort. With prices starting at $224 for two people, the package includes a one night stay, a welcome bag with plush manatee toy along with fun facts and guidelines, manatee snorkeling tour for two (including all equipment needed) and breakfast for two. Hot chocolate and coffee are available on the boat. Plantation on Crystal River is located at 9301 W. Fort Island Trail in Crystal River.
For more information, visit www.PlantationOnCrystalRiver.com or call 800-632-6262 for reservations.