My weekend getaway to Crystal River started on Thanksgiving Day morning. It’s about three and half hours away from my home in Fort Myers. The drive was easy – up Interstate 75 and then I headed west on a few state and county roads which brought me to a stop at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife Sanctuary in Homosassa, Florida just south of Crystal River. Most of the animals in this park are injured or handicapped in some way and are not able to survive in the wild, but some of the animals that have lived in the park were TV “stars.” Lu, the hippo, for example was born at the San Diego Zoo in 1960, and has been a resident of the park since 1964. In his youth he was part of Ivan Tors Animal Actors and starred on television and in the movies. When the State of Florida purchased the former attraction in 1989, it set about finding homes for the exotic animals. Hundreds of letters were sent by local residents to the then Governor, Lawton Chiles, asking him to allow Lu to remain at the park. The Governor declared Lu to be an Honorary Citizen of the State of Florida so he could live out his days at the park. Also, one of the big black bears that starred in the TV show Gentle Ben entertained visitors at the park for many years. He died in the early 1980s.
The manatees that live in the park spend their days swimming and resting in the springs – beautiful aqua-blue water. They are fed lettuce (manatees in the wild typically eat eel grass) and I happened by them while they were eating so I was able to see their faces as they chomped on their feast. After seeing bears, panthers, red wolves, many types of birds, and of course, alligators, I left the animal sanctuary and finished my drive to Crystal River.
On Friday I went to the Three Sisters Springs Park. Again – beautiful aqua-blue water. I wandered around taking photos and watched the people that were swimming in the springs. It is 74 degrees – all the time. The manatees will come into the springs in droves when the Gulf of Mexico temp goes below 64 degrees. I would have braved the cool waters to join the other swimmers, but you cannot go from land into the springs at this park and you cannot go from water to the land – due to the erosion that would occur with people doing so all day long every day. If you want to swim in the springs you have to kayak in.
On Saturday I did what I came to do – swim with manatees! I showed up at the appointed time and place, got into a wet suit and watched a mandatory, short video about what to do and not do when swimming with manatees. The group of six of us plus the tour leader walked a couple blocks to the marina and climbed aboard the boat and off we went into King’s Bay. Because of the fact that it was still relatively warm out and the Gulf temperature was not that cold yet, the boat captain and tour guide were having trouble finding any manatees. They checked a bunch of bays and canals, and finally they spotted one. We put on our mask and snorkels and into the water we went – yep, chilly! I swam over to where the manatee was and put my face in to view him from under water. You’re not supposed to touch them – if they make contact with you that is ok – but he must have been in resting mode. Technically I did swim with a manatee, but I was a bit disappointed in the experience. I chose this particular weekend to go because I had four days off work, but clearly if I want to swim with many manatees I will need to go back when it’s colder. Not too appealing to think about swimming when the air temperature is in the 60s, but I will probably do it.
Crystal River was a great little town to spend a weekend. Whether you want to swim with manatees or not, I highly recommend it!