Florida manatees and the Plantation on Crystal River
For several years we have nursed a fervid desire to swim with Florida manatees and stay at the Plantation on Crystal River. But we didn’t do a thing about it.
Then Blonde decided she might move away from Florida and Brunette was preparing to put on her snow bird wings and fly off to Pennsylvania for the summer.
Suddenly swimming with the manatees took on great urgency and off we went.
The Plantation on Crystal River
The Plantation on Crystal River is the “go-to” place if you have a hankering to legally (important word) swim with manatees in Florida. They are the only place that has permission for their guests to interact carefully and respectfully (two things Blonde isn’t good at) with the large, floating, sappy-smiling, grass-crunching mammals.
The Plantation on Crystal River began in the 1960s with the creation of a golf course designed by Mark Mahannah (whoever he is/was). You may have guessed that we aren’t golfers but if you are you would surely enjoy the 27 holes in the beautiful setting of The Plantation.
A clubhouse was the next thing built. Over time several additional buildings were added for lodging and then a spa, excellent restaurant and array of water activities were added. In 2012 they spent more than three million dollars renovating the property. (About the amount Blonde spent on Botox that same year.)
The result is a very engaging old-Florida meets all new comforts and conveniences property. We sometimes forget how nice it is to stay at a property like this that reflects the local character and history (or at least the best parts of both).
Fortunately they have modern amenities such as free, reliable wi-fi and no annoying resort fee.
The online reservation process for booking the popular swimming with manatees package is a bit clumsy but here’s the whole trick to it; call 800.632.6262. The package cannot be reserved online (although regular rooms can be). You want the package because it includes a manatee outing for two people, breakfast and a late check out if you’re foolish enough to leave.
How swimming with manatees works
You get up horribly early (think 6:00 a.m.). As you can tell from the photo above you don’t need to spend any time in hair and make-up but you do need to eat some breakfast and The Plantation provides a more than ample spread. (You will remember the phrase “more than ample spread” when you try to stuff yourself into the wet suit).
You begin at the dive shop counter where you sign away all of your rights – if a manatee shoots you with a handgun that’s your problem – are fitted for a wetsuit and shown a video on how to interact with and how not to interact with manatees. You will watch the video and think “why did they allow actors to do these despicable things to adorable manatees”? Then you’ll find out that those are real people caught (apprehended is a better word) actually doing those things. (Personally we do allow the manatees to shoot them.)
Because the water is 72 degrees year-round you definitely need a wetsuit so don’t think you can tough it out. The ones they provide are good quality and there’s a changing area beside the dive shop. Everyone is provided with snorkel gear although we took our own. Don’t bring or expect flippers as you can’t wear them to swim with manatees because of kicking risks (to everyone involved but mostly the manatees).
The boat sets out, the coffee kicks in and your captain and the boat driver (yes, that’s obviously the wrong word) start to scan the horizon for telltale manatee signs only they can discern.
A manatee is sighted, everyone takes turns going backwards down the swim ladder and voilà – you’re swimming with manatees! Our Captain was Ed and he did a great job of taking our wrists and dragging us to prime positions over manatees. (That sounds obscene: excellent.)
What you need to know to plan a trip to swim with Florida manatees
Well, first of all they aren’t actually “Florida” manatees, they’re West Indian manatees. But if we call them that Google won’t bring you here for this valuable advice when you do a web search and we have to make a living somehow.
Manatees have somewhat mediocre vision so you probably look as much like a blob to them as they do to you. Their hair is their sensor system and they can sense you from about 8 to 10 feet away. Manatees do not have any natural predators.
Let that sink in.
Not even sharks go after manatees. Nobody messes with Baby. That might be because Baby weighs somewhere between 800 to 1,200 pounds on average.
Another fun fact: Manatees have elbows, 5 fingers on each hand and fingernails. They do not typically get manicures.
Juveniles often have a sort of fuzzy algae-looking growth on them. Some sources say it’s algae but Captain Ed said it’s a sort of manatee herpes that they grow out of. (You can see it on the back of the manatee in the picture above.) Herpes or algae it feels soft and you won’t have to make any awkward explanations to your significant other later as it isn’t contagious.
Oh wait, this was supposed to be about what you need to know!
You need to know that manatees are (at least as of this writing) on the endangered species list so be kind to them.
The best time of year to swim with the manatees in Florida at Crystal River is between November and February with the bestest time of all being the last two weeks of January and first two weeks of February. To do this plan well in advance as word is out.
Try to go when the Three Sisters Springs are open (November – mid April) as there can sometimes be hundreds of manatees there coming to get warm when the waters of the Gulf of Mexico get too cold.
But if you can’t be there at that time of year there are quite a few year-round resident manatees at The Plantation on Crystal River. Don’t get the wrong idea – resident does not mean captive. These are manatees that were born in the river and made it their forever home.
Anything else I might want to do at The Plantation on Crystal River?
Thanks for asking! One thing we think sounds like a lot of fun is the annual Scalloping Shindig (our name for it). You go out in a boat with a scallop net, mask and snorkel (although you can generally just pick up the scallops without diving) and bring back your haul. A local family comes every year and sets up a tent on the premises. They clean your scallops and put them in a baggie (ideally while you enjoy the spa). Best of all the chef cooks them for you that evening and life is truly good!
You might also want to get married at The Plantation (this is an event where you truly do sign away all of your rights), go deep-sea fishing or kayaking, have a golf getaway, a family reunion, or just have a nice low-tech, high-nature “real Florida” getaway.
If you have been to Florida before and gotten Mickey Mouse, Miami and the other usual suspects out of your system it’s time to meet a manatee.
Disclosure: We were comped on our lodging and manatees swim at The Plantation on Crystal River. But weirdly they made us bring our own manatees. OK, that’s not true but we wonder if anyone reads this stuff. Our opinions are ours but mistakes are other peoples’.