The Full Manatee: How To Plan A Trip To Florida’s Nature Coast
When I sat down to plan a manatee-themed trip to the various natural springs of Florida’s central-west-coast, I couldn’t find a clear guide on how to go about it. And when I can’t find clear guides, I write them. Thus, I bring to you my super clear guide on how to plan a manatee-themed trip to the various natural springs of Florida’s central-west-coast!
So, You Want To See Manatees?
The first thing you need to know to plan a successful manatee-themed trip is that timing matters. You can totally visit manatee country in July, but the only manatees you will see are the adorable cement manatee mailboxes that everyone seems to have in this part of Florida.
Manatee season runs from early December through late March, give or take a few weeks on either end depending upon the weather. After all, manatees are living, breathing (adorable) creatures. So they move around. More specifically, they move from the Gulf of Mexico, down the rivers and into the springs in the winter to stay warm, as the gulf temperatures drop but the springs remain a constant 72 degrees. So if you want to see manatees, plan a winter visit.
How Close Do You Want To Get?
There are three basic ways to interact with manatees on a manatee-themed trip: you can view them from land, from a boat or kayak, or you can get in the water with them. Because my trip was manatee-themed, I did all three. Here’s how that turned out:
Viewing Manatees from Above: How To
For above-the-water manatee viewing, you have several options. I’ll ABC style this portion for ease of use. Ahem…
A. You can go to the Crystal River visitor center–located right off of 19 and attached to the tiny police department, which is the ‘major’ road in this area–pay $15, and take a trolley to the boardwalk. It comes every thirty minutes. This option involves a lot of sitting around and waiting.
B. You can go to Homosassa Springs State Park, walk the boardwalk, see the rehabilitated animals and Lou the Hippo, and end up at the springs overlook. If you do this, you have two options.
- You can park at the visitor center right on 19 and take the insanely slow boat to the actual park (this is what we did but I was super angry at my husband because I knew option two existed.)
- You can drive west off of 19 for a mile or so on West Yulee Drive and park at the actual entrance to the preserve. Put ‘Homosassa Riverside Resort’ into your GPS and stop when you see the huge HOMOSASSA sign in what is clearly a parking lot. Recommended.
Please note: they do keep some manatees in captivity if they are injured or sick. This is not the point of going to this state park, though we saw lots of people sadly staring at sick manatees in an enclosure. Do not do this. Would you want strangers staring at you while you are in the hospital? No. You would not.
Instead, continue on to the overlook at the Garden of the Springs (clearly marked on the map they will give you) and see manatees in the wild. This is also the exact spot where you will swim with them if you take my advice in the ‘how to swim with manatees’ section below.
C. You can just have a drink on the Homosassa River and see manatees swim up to the bar. I recommend The Shed, located at MacRae’s Motel. More on this location later. But seriously–the manatees are right there. As are dolphins and pelicans and all kinds of other birds I can’t even name. (I LOVE IT HERE.)
Kayaking With Manatees: How (Not) To
We rented kayaks from A Crystal River Kayak Company, located in what is definitely a storage space right on Rt. 19 in Crystal River. It was super easy, as their facility backs up onto a canal that really is a very short paddle to the Three Sisters Springs. Like seriously, it’s right there. I’m not a kayak person and I can do this. At the springs, you can tie up your kayak and swim in to the springs. You can also continue on to spend an entire day paddling in King’s Bay, which is what we would have done except…
We were there on a very, very, VERY windy day.
If it is windy, I do not recommend doing this paddle. I also do not recommend doing this paddle any time other than very early morning. Here’s why:
So we paddled the ten minutes to Three Sisters. When we arrived at around 11am, there were maybe five pontoon boats there, plus maybe ten other kayakers and a crap-ton of people who are snorkeling (presumably brought there by pontoon boats). This is in an area of maybe a thousand square feet. It was crowded.
And it was windy.
Have I mentioned that this was the first time my husband ever kayaked?
I could tell the story of how my husband panicked in the wind-induced current and crowds, tried to turn too quickly, tipped over and lost my camera on the bottom of the river (and almost our rental car keys). I could tell you how I made him FIND my camera, and that a little girl lent him her goggles so he could do so. But sharing that story would bring unnecessary embarrassment to my dear, dear, uncoordinated husband.
So if you are going to do this trip–which I definitely recommend, by the way–arrive early and watch the weather. Wear a wet suit, take a snorkel and goggles (ahem) and plan to spend the day on the bay after checking out the springs. The lovely people at A Crystal River Kayak Company will give you a waterproof map (which is super helpful. You know, when you fall in the river?)
Swimming with Manatees: How To
Because this was the highlight of our time in this part of Florida, we chose to do the manatee swim on our first day. It was a great call, as you gain a deep appreciation for these giant, dopey, loveable creatures after getting up close and personal. We did a bunch of research which led us to make all of the following decisions, and we had an amazing experience. I’d do it again in exactly the same way tomorrow. Here’s how we did it:
-We booked with River Ventures, which offers manatee swims in two different locations–Crystal River and Homosassa. I highly recommend booking with River Ventures, and if you can, request Amanda as your guide. She was wonderful, and set a great example of how to passively observe manatees without disrupting them.
-We chose the Homosassa location, as it was where we were staying and was also said to be less crowded. It was blissfully less crowded. So much so that I actually hesitate to recommend it, as I kind of want to keep it my own little secret. But hey, it’s not like I have a huge blog audience, right? The Homoasassa trip departs from River Safaris and Gulf Charters, which is a half mile from the place I’m going to tell you to stay.
-We took the first tour of the day, which began at 7am. Yes, we got up at 5:30am on our first day of vacation. And do you know what? It was totally worth it. We had a great little group of only seven people, all adults. And we had the springs to ourselves when we arrived. As we were getting ready to leave, more tours arrived and we were glad we got to be there when it was silent and peaceful.
There’s one thing that no one tells you about swimming with manatees: it was the coldest I’ve ever been. I’ve hiked on glaciers, I worked in Chicago for an entire winter during a polar vortex (you recall those videos of people throwing boiling water in the air and it freezing? Yeah. That.) And yet this was the coldest I’ve ever been. Here’s why: the best manatee viewing happens when the air temp is low. And the springs are always 72 degrees, which doesn’t sound cold. But think about it–you are 98.6 degrees. Floating around in 72 degree water, even in a wet suit, lowers your core body temp. And then you get out of the water and on to the boat. And it’s 50 degrees out.
And of course we didn’t even bring towels because we are idiots. So, like, definitely do this trip. Just maybe bring a blanket or something. Or a parka.
Mermaids: The Other Manatees
Fun fact: the myth of the mermaid is often attributed to too-long-at-sea sailors mistaking manatees for women with tails. In my opinion, you’d have to be at sea a really, really, REALLY long time to confuse these two. Mermaids are hot. Manatees are not. But whatever. Mermaids and manatees are tangentially connected. So on your manatee trip, you may want to see some mermaids.
Which you can do, at Weeki Wachee. Real, live mermaids. Sort of.
We visited during a weekend festival, so it was pretty packed. But typically you can show up around an hour before show time, park, walk around the visitor center for a bit, and then get in line for the 20 minute mermaid show. It’s definitely a cheesy tourist stop, but one that is worthwhile for a quick stop.
You can also rent kayaks on site and paddle down the Weeki Wachee River, which I’ve been told is fantastic and which we tried to do. I was also told to book a kayak in advance, which I did NOT do. Which was a mistake. So, like, maybe book a kayak in advance? You’re welcome.
Other Details: Where to Stay and What To Eat In Manatee Country
There are a bunch of cheap chain motels which line Rt 19 from Crystal River to Weeki Wachee. I do not recommend any of them. Do yourself a favor and get off of the main drag and venture into Old Homosassa and stay at one of the also-cheap non-chain motels on the river–either MacRae’s or Homosassa Riverside Resort. We stayed at the latter (pictured above) and paid $65/night for a perfectly clean room with a little parking-lot-view patio with two palm trees directly across from the marina. It was lovely, and the drive there was even more so. It’s three miles from ‘town’, down a winding road shaded by Spainish-moss-dripping live oaks. It will be hard for me to return to Florida ever again and not spend at least two nights at one of these motels. This is the Florida I was looking for.
When on a manatee-themed trip, you are going to eat a lot of grouper. It’s local, it’s good, and it’s cheap. It’s also mostly deep-fried, but that’s ok. You’ll swim and paddle and walk off those calories. Or at least that’s what I told myself.
I honestly didn’t have any culinary expectations for this trip. You know, because random little touristy towns in Florida? (I’m a food snob, I am aware of that.) But we had three of the best meals in recent memory in these little touristy Florida towns. Here’s where:
Clawdaddy’s Raw Bar and Grill in Crystal River. You’ll note that the name of this place is not hot linked. That’s because it doesn’t have a website. It’s also located in a strip mall. But the cashier at the Publix an hour away told us we had to eat here, and she was right. We actually ate here twice. In three days. So there’s that. Clawdaddy’s is located directly across the street from A Crystal River Kayak Company. We went for lunch both times, but have heard it can get busy for dinner. Which is fair, because they sell buckets of oysters for $23. Yes, that’s what I said. A BUCKET of oysters for $23. How many oysters are in a bucket, you ask? We were served 32. Raw, shucked oysters with all the fixings–lemon, horseradish, tarter and cocktail, plus crackers–for twenty-three US dollars. And they shucked them in like six minutes. And they were good. I don’t know about you, but where I live, oysters are upwards of $3 a piece. They are also my favorite food in the world which is why I’m likely going on and on about them. I’ll stop now. Sorry.
The Shed at MacRae’s Motel, Baitshop and Tiki Bar. That title is scary, right? And the photos on the “website’ look kind of creepy. But I assure you, you want to go to this open air huge, huge tiki-esque bar (pictured above). Bar seating looks out over the boat slips and river, and there’s live music on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. This place gets packed. Thursday was wing night, and I maintain that we had the best wings I’ve ever had here. They set up fryers under a pop up tent in the parking lot. Just go here. Do it. Oh, and a local craft beer is on draft for like $2/pint. I could not love this place more. Also there are pelicans. And manatees. And dolphins. I’ll stop again. Sorry again.
The Riverside Crab House at Homosassa Riverside Resort. We stayed here, which is why we ate here. But the food is cheap and good and the wait staff is friendly. Oh, and you have a view of the river and the Homosassa-famous Monkey Island. I recommend the grouper BLT, which doesn’t technically exist–I asked to sub blackened grouper for the salmon on the salmon BLT and it was fantastic.
In case it was not apparent by how freaking long this post is, I really enjoyed my time on Florida’s Nature Coast. And if you are planning your own trip, I’m certain you will enjoy it as well. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below. Happy manatee-ing!
Disclaimer: this trip was not sponsored in any way. I paid for and planned all of it. And I’ll do it again.