We flew in on Saturday but our first day in the parks wasn't until Monday, so we had a day to fill. After throwing around a few suggestions, Jon came across some information about an area called Crystal River less than 2 hours from Orlando. It's the only place on earth where you can (legally) swim with, and interact with, manatees. SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY.
If you know me at all or have followed my blog for any amount of time, you know how excited I was about this. We booked our reservations and I went from having no idea you even COULD swim with manatees to compulsively checking our tour company's page on TripAdvisor multiple times a day to see how the manatee conditions were looking. Early October isn't prime manatee season in Crystal River so I told myself I'd be happy just seeing one from the boat. (I would have been, too, but fortunately we had much better luck than that.)
We very nearly missed our tour. We woke up plenty early, but made an ill-fated stop for egg McMuffins at a crucial interchange on the way there and didn't realize we'd gotten on the wrong freeway until we were 15 miles down the road. I haven't felt that level of stress and sheer panic in a long time. I think I gave myself AND Annie and Jon ulcers. (There were a couple more moments of that panic later in the Disney parks too; just you wait.)
Miraculously we made it to our tour with just two minutes to spare (this is why you always give yourself A CRAPLOAD OF TIME to get to places you care about, folks) and were immediately ushered into the briefing room, fitted for wetsuits, and directed to the shuttle that took us to the pier.
Get ready for dozens of pictures. I can't edit when it comes to one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life (and why should I? Get outta here.)
So excited! We knew it would be a successful excursion when we spotted our first manatee before we even got out of the shuttle.
I love this picture so much. Annie's face matched my own.
Manatee sighting! Our tour guide called this a "mating group," and they were feeling very frisky. We didn't get in the water with them.
Annie on the lookout.
Jon, me, Annie (and our tour guide Sean) on the lookout.
And we had our first chance!! Of course it happened in the only deep, murky water in all of Crystal River. This was terrifying. Visibility in this water was about 2 feet. (That manatee I'm touching in the picture is nearly at the surface.) There was a moment shortly after we all got in the water that the tour guide yelled at me from the boat "It's coming right at you!!" in what I'm sure was meant to be in a happy/excited tone, but which I heard as though in a horror movie. Three seconds later, it was suddenly THERE, a foot from my face. These things are massive; it certainly got my heart racing.
The group we saw here were all covered in algae. According to our tour guide, that meant they had spent the summer in Crystal River (the vast majority only winter there).
Headed back for the boat. The pool noodles were super handy since we were swimming in fresh water, not salt.
BABY MANATEE!!!! We headed up a little channel towards Three Sisters springs (more on that later) and came across a group of two adults and a calf. They were swimming the opposite direction so we turned around, got ahead of them, then hopped in the water to watch/touch them as they swam past.
Coming up for air
The scenery was so gorgeous.
This was so awesome. We came across an enormous sleeping manatee. Our tour guide positioned us in a semi-circle around him and let us observe for about 20 minutes. It was so peaceful floating there, trying to be as still as possible, watching him napping. About every 4-5 minutes he'd rise to the surface for air then sink back down, never waking. We gave him space and just observed.
I can't tell 100% if this picture is of Annie or not. But judging from the toes, I'm going to say yes.
After watching the sleeping manatee for a good long while, we swam up into an area called Three Sisters Springs that contributes to the headwater of Crystal River. In the winter there can be over a hundred manatees just in this small area (they like it cuz it's warm), but we didn't see any up there. The water was so perfectly aquamarine and clear and refreshing. We spent about 30 minutes swimming to all three springs, diving down for closer looks, watching fish/crabs, and gasping over the beautiful scenery.
Me and Jon
Sooooo gorrrrgeous can't wait to go back
My hair is really not that red. Unfortunately.
Me and Jon navigating some treacherous roots
"But officer, the sign didn't say anything about gouging."
Our tour company, River Ventures, was fantastic. We couldn't have been more pleased with our choice (they even took the majority of these pictures). It was all about respect and love for the animals, waiting to find the right manatees under the right circumstances, and letting them interact on their own terms. We unfortunately saw a couple of other tour groups harassing the animals - rushing them, splashing, making loud noises. YOU MAKE THE ANIMALS SKITTISH AND IT RUINS IT FOR EVERYONE. Idiots.