Crystal River Although you can see manatees in many different places in Florida, Crystal River is the place to be. The name says it all, the water here is particularly clear. Crystal River consists of a series of springs where the water comes up through the limestone. All year round the temperature is 22.2⁰C, ideal for the manatees who come here to survive in the winter. And now it's finally here: I too am going to Crystal River to survive the cold (Dutch) winter! Since I have to be in Florida anyway, I decide to add a few days for diving or freediving. I have been hesitating between diving with sharks at Jupiter or snorkeling with manatees, but the latter seemed the most special. I book a guided tour and want to rent a kayak for the rest of the time in the hope that I can explore on my own - of course with freediving equipment and an underwater camera on board.

"I want to go to Three Sisters Springs because that's where the water is clearest - with beautiful blues and greens."

When I arrive at Crystal River in the afternoon, I immediately rent a kayak. The guys at the kayak rental are very nice, everything is ready to go and they even draw me a map so I know where to go. The first manatee is said to have been spotted right in front of the dock! I want to go to Three Sisters Springs because that's where the water is clearest - with beautiful blue and green colors. However, I have not been paddling for five minutes when I already see the first manatee grazing in the shallows. I calmly drop my anchor at a distance and slide into the water. Carefully I swim towards the huge animal. He is much too busy stuffing himself to have any interest in me and I can watch him and take pictures. After half an hour with my first manatee I continue to explore. Even in the small canals past the houses, you can see the manatees swimming under your kayak.  


A manatee always comes first 

There are many rules in Crystal River, all designed to protect the animals. Therefore, you are not allowed to swim with them everywhere. At first I'm a little nervous about where I can and cannot swim, because there is strict supervision. The manatees always go first. After fifteen minutes of paddling past mangroves and freshwater turtles, I arrive at Three Sisters Springs. Here there are so many manatees that the supervisors have decided that visitors are not welcome. Too bad for me, but obviously better for the animals.

I decide to float in front of the entrance to the Springs and see if any manatees are swimming in or out. That turns out to be a good decision! At leisure, a manatee regularly passes by, wanting to go check on its friends or finding it too crowded in the Springs. How wonderful it is to be able to observe these animals in the wild! When it begins to get dark, one of the supervisors asks if I want to stay long. She would like to go home by now anyway. The sun is already setting, I am cold and tired, but actually I do not want to leave these fantastic animals at all. Nevertheless, I decide to paddle with the supervisor to the river. After swimming with at least 15 manatees I am also treated to a beautiful sunset. And that is only day 1!

Hi there

Up early

The second day I have to get up early, because I am expected at 6 o'clock in the morning at the dive shop for the organized tour. I chose them because they leave on time - before the crowds start. It is early, but then you have something. With a cup of coffee we watch the introductory video on dealing with manatees in a small group. We leave by boat and around 7 o'clock we are indeed the first ones at the entrance of one of the Springs. After about ten minutes the next boat arrives and from that moment it becomes increasingly crowded. This is getting a bit too busy for me and I retreat, hoping that a manatee will pass by on my spot. People are swimming after the animals and on the small stretch where the manatees are, you see floundering Americans everywhere. At that moment I understand why some people are against the tourist industry around the manatees. It's clear that not everyone adheres to the 'manatee-rules'. It is nice to see the large group of manatees together during the tour and I have some pictures, but exploring the area on your own by kayak is really more fun. 

Tips from Joost

"If you are an experienced snorkeler or freediver, then going out on your own with a kayak or sup is a lot of fun. If you are not so confident in the water, choose a guided tour, especially for the first day. You'll get everything explained to you well and they'll show you exactly how to do everything, where to be and how to deal with the friendly giants. Anyone who wants to snorkel with the manatees I recommend contacting Birds Underwater. Whether you book a tour or prefer to explore on your own is a choice you have to make. At this dive school they are happy to help you, whatever you choose. I stayed at Kings Bay Lodge, a nice place right on the water and close to the dive center, restaurants and other activities."

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Buford Springs

When we get back to the dive shop around noon, I decide to drive to Buford Springs. The manager of the dive shop, Cody, told me enthusiastically about this 70-meter deep crystal clear spring in an otherwise marshy area. I pick up lead, a suit and my freediving gear and arrive at the national park an hour later. From the parking lot I have to walk another 10 minutes through the fantastic nature. Along the narrow path I see an armadillo . What a bizarre animal! Suddenly the path ends and I am in the middle of nowhere at a small lake. There is no one to be seen. I put on my suit and enter the water via the stairs. Rather chilly! The water is crystal clear and there are fallen trees everywhere. Small black fish come swimming around me as I float above a hole 70 meters deep. I dive down, but around 14 meters it is already getting pretty dark. It's a cloudy day and I haven't gone any deeper. Around ten meters is deep enough for me in this spacious cave. I can take wonderful pictures, but after an hour and a half I've had it with the cold. When I come out, there is a family on the waterfront. They already saw a black snake swimming in the muddy area along the shore. Suddenly I'm glad I got out....

Mom and Daughter

One more time to the manatees The next day I have to leave for Tampa in the afternoon. That just gives me the opportunity to go to the manatees. I can pick up a kayak at 7 and want to try again at Three Sisters Springs because I like the colors of the water and the scenery best there. This time the Spring is open. I can't believe my luck and attach the kayak to the shore and swim through the narrow stream into the spring. Immediately two manatees come swimming towards me. A mother and child, what an incredible sight! It's still very early and a bit dark, so I have to adjust the settings in my camera quite a bit, but I still get the clear blue water on the photo. Once in the real Spring, there is only one other snorkeler. Manatees are grazing and hanging out everywhere. The water is a crisp blue. Occasionally the cloud cover breaks and I have enough light for sharp photos. The best moment is when one of the manatees swims right up to me and comes to the surface right in front of me. He stares at me for a minute, takes a breath of air and slowly lowers himself to the bottom to continue his nap. These are truly experiences to remember!

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