Marvellous mermaids in Florida’s Crystal River

Kathy Carter


If swimming with captive aquatic mammals doesn’t float your boat, then snorkelling with manatees, believed to be the source of the ancient mermaid folklore, could be the excursion for you. Basing a vacation around a wildlife experience with manatees is the perfect way to see the less commercial aspects of Florida, and witness these majestic, gentle sea creatures up close and personal. (March to mid-May and October to November offer the most comfortable temperatures).

Why the ‘Nature Coast’ has the most welcoming waters

Citrus County in Florida boasts the largest freshwater system in the region, and is rightly defined by water; from isolated, natural founts and spring-fed rivers, to busy, touristy lakes and tucked-away coastal bays. This network of rivers is of course the vital link to the manatee, as these glorious creatures flock in their hundreds to Florida each winter, to seek the warm spring waters; and there are multitudes of these natural groundwater flows that conserve the waterway ecosystems. One famous area, Kings Bay, is fed by more than 70 springs. The main draw of the region is the Crystal River itself, in the coastal city of the same name; it has the largest concentration of manatees worldwide. A trip here may touch the soul in ways that are hard to define and describe. Quite apart from the surreal experience of seeing and interacting with these wondrous creatures, this waterway assaults the senses in every way. Surrounded by swathes of citrussy orange groves, it boasts rivers that shimmer like transparent topaz, and is home to a host of impressive wildlife that includes bald eagles and four different breeds of sea turtle. It offers visitors a welcome, back-to-nature respite from their overwhelming lives.

All about the famous sea-cows

The West Indian manatee has two subspecies, the Florida manatee and the Caribbean manatee; they weigh around 200–600 kg (the same weight as a horse or a grand piano, if you’re interested) so they’re big; yet graceful. They’re grey in colour, but commonly play host to algae and barnacles, giving them a green-ish hue. The manatee’s camouflage against the aforementioned topaz waters, and their slow, silent passage through the waterways, adds to their peaceful mysticism. With so many large mammals commanding fear and being menacingly-toothed, the manatee is the opposite. They’re smiley and non-territorial, choosing to socialise in pairs or small groups (herds); and as herbivores, they eat sea grasses, estuary vegetation and algae. They’re lumbering, friendly and super inquisitive, with a wrinkly, cartoonish face, and small, sunken eyes that connect with the human soul. Manatees are seemingly most amused by humans.

Why swimming with manatees should be on your bucket list

Swimming with these beautiful creatures is a special experience. With their paddle-like tails, they’re famously believed to be the source of ancient mermaid folklore; the first written record of manatees is said to be by Christopher Columbus en-route to the Americas, in 1493. With a tinge of disappointment, he wrote that the mermaids he saw were ‘Not half as beautiful as they are painted.’

You may never truly appreciate the phrase ‘Take your breath away’ until your first manatee swims before you, silently coasting past, as you snorkel in a cumbersome life-vest. Vising groups undertaking an educational boat trip along the Crystal River may well see small herds of five to six manatees on their excursion, perhaps including nursing mothers and calves. Sometimes there may be the opportunity to touch them, and you can marvel as they spin around before you; just for the fun of it. Those tiny, soul-piercing eyes and chubby, marshmallow faces smile up at you to a soundtrack in your head of Caribbean-folk-rock singer, Jimmy Buffett (co-founder of the Save the Manatee Club), whose music proliferates the trips. You may ponder - why is swimming with wild manatees so special? Perhaps it is because there’s no coercion with food, clickers and whistles; they stay with you when they want to, and when they’re done watching these strange, orange-clad humans with flailing plastic flippers, they quietly slip away into the ghostly underwater murk again.

Why awareness and education is helping manatees thrive

Pleasingly, in 2017, manatees of all orders were declared just a threatened species, as opposed to an endangered one. The population of West Indian manatees in Florida was at the time declared to be around 6,620; a dramatic turnaround from the 1970s, when just a few hundred individuals remained. Their current threats are said to be from boat collisions, climate change, pollution and loss of habitat, and great strides have been made by local authorities; for example, introducing boat speed zones and manatee protection plans. Large-scale education programmes have also helped, and the touristy trips along the Crystal River are actively promoted, framed as educational activities that raise awareness of the importance of the species within the Floridian ecosystem. (Incidentally, Citrus County is the only place in America where you can legally swim with manatees).

What else can you do in Citrus County?

For nature fans, there’s much to do in the region if you’re vising Florida, including various wildlife refuges and parks. The Three Sisters Springs within the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is a 57-acre preserve accessible by water by kayak or canoe, with a splendid boardwalk featuring viewing platforms from which to watch the word go by. Elsewhere, the Crystal River State Archaeological Site celebrates the region's indigenous people, and also offers opportunities for fishing and bird watching; meanwhile, the Withlacoochee State Forest, a menagerie of trail loops, caves and ponds, welcomes campers. There’s also ample opportunity for hiking and cycling, including the Withlacoochee State Cycle Trail. While you’re in the region, don’t forget to sample the famous Key Lime Pie; perfect with seafood.

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