Till the Sea Cows Come Home: Swimming with gentle giants in Crystal River

Just past its centennial, the town’s favorite part-time residents are returning en masse
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A slow-moving Florida manatee floats through the waters of Kings Bay

Photo courtesy of Explorida

As the boat meanders through the bay, my guide and captain debate locations to check for manatees. They rattle off familiar ones we might run into—Greased Lightning, Penny Pockmark—named and remembered by the map of scars across their backs. Finally, we stop in a small cove flanked by docks and residential houses. I lower myself into the drink, and my teeth instantly begin to chatter. As I duck under the surface, I see more than two dozen manatees gather by a small spring and graze on seagrass, elephantine mermaids without a care in the world.

It’s recommended that visitors practice passive observation, meaning remaining motionless, avoiding contact, and viewing manatees from a distance. Lying prone in the cove, suspended by pool noodles to stay at the surface of the water, I feel silly—but that embarrassment soon fades. Nearby, I hear squeaky chirps. A calf swims slowly by me to join its mother on the seabed. The pair float together, placid, happy, and suspended in time. 

Located on the western side of Florida, about an hour north of Tampa, the small town of Crystal River is the only place in the world where people can legally swim with manatees in their natural habitat. The town, known as the “Manatee Capital of the World,” wraps around Kings Bay, a 600-acre bay. Nourished by a cluster of more than 70 underground springs (the second largest group of springs in Florida) which pump nearly 600-million gallons of water a day, King’s Bay remains a constant 72 degrees. The warm spring waters make it an indispensable refuge for the peaceable herbivores, who cannot survive in water colder than 68 degrees. More than 600 of the marine mammals migrate here each winter when waters in the Gulf of Mexico cool. 

Kings Bay is an important wintertime refuge for manatees

Photo courtesy of Discover Crystal River

Often referred to as sea cows, manatees are everywhere in Crystal River. Murals depict them on the walls of main street, and manatee-themed mailboxes adorn the front lawns of many houses. Two manatee statues wearing bow ties and fezzes greet me as I pull into my hotel. It’s a wonder that an animal who looks like a wrinkled submarine and spends the majority of its time chewing cud can capture the imagination of a town, a state, quite like the manatee has.

Manatee populations have recovered in past years through the help of human intervention. According to preliminary numbers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, at least 800 manatees died in Florida in 2022, down from 1,100 the year previous. Protections, like preserved habitat areas and waterway speed limits, have aided the gentle creatures’ recovery, but the species remains endangered. High manatee mortality rates due to starvation are a main concern, as poor water quality continues to affect their primary food source—seagrass.

Today, the waters at Crystal River are every bit their namesake: crystalline and vividly blue. But the health of King’s Bay had been deteriorating for years. In the 1980s, an invasive plant, Hydrilla, started smothering the native flora in Crystal River. A mixture of human and natural factors, mainly the 1993 No-Name Storm which pushed tons of salt water into the spring, killed plant life that then decayed on the river bottom. Year after year, layers of muck built up, creating the perfect conditions for aggressive algae to bloom out of control. This algae, known as lyngbya (and best visualized as clumps of thick, wet hair), blocked sunlight and sucked oxygen out of the water, killing underwater vegetation. Without eelgrass—a natural filter that can sequester more carbon per acre than a tropical rainforest—the health of the water gradually worsened. 

Lyngbya, an agressive, invasive algae

Photo courtesy of Save Crystal River

Diminishing amounts of seagrass meadows wreaked havoc on the local ecosystem, both environmental and commercial. Seagrass may be the primary food source for manatees, but it is also essential to support all kinds of creatures on the aquatic food chain, from the macroscopic to the microscopic, that call the meadows home. Few organisms, save lyngbya, could survive in the low-oxygen environment. Poor water quality soon began to affect the town’s people: The fishermen, hotels, tour companies, and restaurants that depend on ecotourism to bring in business suffered. Members of the community watched as the once-transparent waters of King’s Bay became increasingly opaque.

In 2015, however, things started to change. A nonprofit, all-volunteer community organization, Save Crystal River, received funding from the state legislature for a pilot project to clean the waterways. The group hired Sea & Shoreline, an aquatic restoration firm, to help reverse the damage. Their process was threefold: first, floating barges outfitted with special vacuum equipment siphon waste and algae from the riverbed; second, divers plant a variety of eelgrass, nicknamed “Rock Star” in cages along the river bottom; third, biologists monitor the saplings, making sure the plants grow. Despite initial skepticism surrounding the success of the project, by 2022, Save Crystal River reports that they have opened 850 springs, removed 400 million pounds of lyngbya and waste materials, and planted more than 420,000 individual eelgrass pods. 

A diver hand planting seagrass

Photo courtesy of Sea & Shoreline

The restoration efforts have been a boon for the town’s tourist economy. Manatees now gather in record numbers and remain in the area for longer periods of time, happily grazing on lush, underwater pastures of new eelgrass, which proliferated and spread downstream. Travelers found the newly cleared channels much more inviting to fish, kayak, and boat in. Biodiversity flourished—the area’s various marine species, from blue crabs to herons, returned in droves.  

The organization plans to complete their pilot project, an initial 92 acres, by July 1, 2023, the centennial anniversary of the town. They see that victory as just the start of their work. “I want our program to serve as a model for the state of Florida,” says Lisa Moore, president of Save Crystal River. “It’s been a tremendous, incremental effort, but look at what a small group of volunteers from a small town can accomplish.” Despite their feat, Moore stresses the importance of vigilance: “We have to help the next generation understand that this can happen again. We have to be more conscious, and appreciative, of what we have. These places don’t exist anywhere else. Our waters make us individual; they serve as our heritage.”

More to explore in Citrus County

Stay
Let The Retreat at Crystal Manatee, located only a five-minute walk from Crystal River’s historic downtown and famous attractions like King’s Bay Park and Hunter Springs, serve as your launch pad for a day of old-Florida adventures. Return to the revamped hotel at day’s end to find freshly baked pastries (in my case, almond croissants) waiting for you.

The Retreat at Crystal Manatee

Photo courtesy of Discover Crystal River

Eat
The emerald-hued Wallace’s at the Greenhouse offers elevated fare—duck breast in a blueberry gastrique, parmesan pesto cod—from a menu that changes weekly, along with playful, island-inspired cocktails, like the passion fruit rum punch.

Wallace’s at the Greenhouse

Photo courtesy of Discover Crystal River

Do
Explore the waterways of King’s Bay by boat or by snorkel with local tour company Explorida. Seasoned guides lead a variety of chartered tours, including manatee viewing and swimming excursions, scallop dives, and private sunset cruises.

Snorkeling with manatees

Photo courtesy of Discover Crystal River

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