In the summer months, the Florida manatee’s range is wide. They roam as far as Texas, even the Bahamas, says Ross Files.
But as autumn creeps in – much like the snowbirds who head south in pursuit of balmy climes and ample buffets – the manatees come in droves to the warmth of Florida, wending their way inland to the quaint town of Crystal River.
Practice "passive interaction," and you're all but guaranteed face time with these curious gentle giants — Photo courtesy of Ross Files / Plantation on Crystal River
“It happens fast. One day you see two, the next day 40 and the day after that a hundred,” says Files, who cheerily captains a vessel out of the Plantation Adventure Center, an on-site dive shop and tour operator at Plantation on Crystal River. The comfortable pontoons carry wildlife enthusiasts for just a few minutes before dropping anchor.
And you do have to be enthusiastic to don a wetsuit at 7 a.m.
Bring the kids: Captain Ross helps this 10-year-old realize her NatGeo-inspired dreams — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
During manatee season, near-freezing temps are not uncommon in early morning. An eerie mist borne of the surrounding springs’ constant 72-degree temps hangs mysteriously above the shallows.
For those used to treading water above Caribbean reefs, it’s likely to add a dash of intrigue to the idea of slipping quietly into a realm that can at times seem more befitting of the Black Lagoon’s famed "Creature."
A swimmer hovers above the sun-dappled back of a new friend — Photo courtesy of Ross Files / Plantation on Crystal River
“Passive interaction” is a phrase adventurers will hear repeated on the dive shop video, which they’ll watch before embarking, and via the captain as they approach the snorkeling site. This phrase means “Let the manatees come to you.”
Follow staffers’ instructions, and they almost certainly will. Often right up in your face. With no natural predators to fear, manatees are innately curious, even playful. They’re also more graceful than you might imagine.
Humans hang on the periphery of an ample no-people zone, a marked, roped-off area where the sea cows can rest or interact with one another unmolested. Its very presence, in fact, seems to support the idea that manatees actually seek out the interaction.
The animals seem to delight in the attention — Photo courtesy of Ross Files / Plantation on Crystal River
Back on the boat, if you even remember it’s there (The manatees will undoubtedly have that effect on you.), coffee and cocoa await, as does the chance to discuss the exhilarating experience with your companions.
If you’re more interested in enjoying this adventure than documenting it, fear not. Your captain will be snapping and shooting the entire time. For $30, you can take it all home on a CD that will wow your friends and family.
Plantation on Crystal River’s Adventure Center runs a host of other trips, as well. Some are wholly immersive (a guided scuba tour of the cavern at King Spring, for example), others – scalloping, fishing, kayaking and manatee- or bird-watching – less so.
Local, pan-seared grouper at West 82º — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Back at the resort, visitors can relax and trade manatee tales over a craft cocktail and a bite at the West 82º Bar and Grill or perhaps at its 19th Hole Bar and Grill, if they choose to partake of the plantation’s 27 holes of championship golf. Winter is certainly a prime season in which to do it.
Feeling intrepid? Head off property for a spell. One of the area’s options comes in the form of Crystal River Archaeological State Park, where a three-quarter-mile-long paved path amid moss-draped oaks will find visitors walking, quite literally, in the footsteps of the ancients.
The temple mound was built around 600 A.D. Sweeping views await those who make the climb — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
One of the oldest continuously occupied places in Florida, it served for some 1,600 years as a ceremonial center for Native Americans.
A small museum houses artifacts pulled from the grounds and a short video explains its history. An imposing, 28-foot temple mound affords not only astonishing views of the coastal marshes that border the park, but also the chance to ponder what life was like for the area’s people, the last of whom were gone two centuries before Europeans landed in the New World.
Crystal River is less than two hours’ drive from downtown Orlando, making it ideal for a quick day trip or easy overnight in Mickey’s shadow. Few, if any, places will get you as close to wild, native Florida as this.