Our first trip required an early start. Our intent was to "swim with the manatees". In cooler months, these friendly, warm-blooded aquatic creatures prefer to sleep in or near the springs which flow year-round at 72 degrees, so they congregate at certain locations each night. This behavior affords people the chance to interact with them. There are many local businesses that will shuttle folks to the springs and lend them a wetsuit and snorkeling equipment for a fee, but my wife and I generally shun the touristy-type package deals and opt instead for planning our own adventure.
So we woke at 4:30am, had some breakfast, slipped into our neoprene, and headed for the small town of Crystal River which is about 20 miles southwest of where we were staying. We arrived there, unloaded the kayaks, and launched from a free boat ramp on SW 3rd Avenue at around sunrise. Don't forget to click the images to enlarge them.
launching at dawn into the calm waters of King's Bay
We made our way over to "Three Sisters Spring" which was about a half-mile from our put-in. Once there we were greeted by signs informing us that tying boats up to vegetation was prohibited, but we came prepared with various lengths of rope and carabiners so we simply tied on to an underwater rock.
Since neither my wife or I are surfers, this was our first time using a wetsuit. We were amazed how well they functioned. I hate cold water (which I define as anything less than 88 degrees) and I stayed warm as toast the whole time we were swimming.
It wasn't long before we made our first contact with one of the sea cows. We swam upstream into the spring and came upon this little guy...
I say "little" although he (or she) was still enormous. It was about six feet long, but they can grow to be more than twice that length and some of the ones we saw later were indeed at least ten feet long with a girth to match. Unfortunately, as more and more people arrived on the pontoon boats, the water got stirred up with debris which affected the clarity of the pictures we took with our cheapo Kodak underwater camera. You can find much better photos of manatees on the internet so I have only posted a few of the ones we took that day.
So, we got to see the huge beasts up close and personal. Quite an experience I must say, and certainly worth the $50 fee if your only alternative is to pay for the privilege. We spent about an hour and a half in the water with them and another 30 minutes or so paddling the springs where only hand-powered craft and swimmers are allowed.
looks inviting, don't it?
We followed a different lagoon route back to the bay in order to check out some of the homes that line the waterfront. Back in the bigger water, it only took a few minutes to find a secluded beach where we could surreptitiously change out of our wetsuits.
We then proceeded to follow the Crystal River out towards the Gulf of Mexico. After paddling for a couple of hours, we stopped for an early lunch at "Fort Island Trail Park". There are restrooms, a pavilion with picnic tables overlooking the river, barbeque grills, a fishing pier, and a boat ramp at this location. A perfect spot to take a break.
Here's my trusty steed moored to a floating dock. The other yak is on the opposite side but you can't see it in the picture. Behind them is a footbridge that leads to the picnic area.
A few more miles of paddling and we came to the mouth of the river. Our yaks proved themselves seaworthy in the open water of the Gulf.
We paddled out to an uninhabited spot called Shell Island to have a look around. This visitor gave the place a thumbs up.
Our final destination for the day was Fort Island Beach. The 80 degree sunny afternoon was apparently a good enough excuse to skip work and relax with the family at this free park which was packed with visitors. It just so happened that as we were pulling our boats out of the water, another solo kayaker/fisherman was throwing his boat in the back of his truck and I was able to bum a ride with him back to town to retrieve our vehicle. Less than an hour later we had our yaks back on the roof racks and all our gear stowed. A little catnap on the beach, a quick rinse off in the outside shower, a change of clothes, and we were ready to cap off our day with dinner at The Plantation Inn.
We enjoyed a sumptuous meal, served by a professional and attentive staff. Best of all the bill was only $23 plus tip since we had a coupon from restaurant.com. A perfect ending to a perfect day!
Click THIS link for a short video of the manatees. Sorry it's so shaky at the end... when I figure out how to trim off the last 20 seconds I will replace it.