Dubbed by many as the “Manatee Capital of the World,” Crystal River is a little less than a two-hour car ride north of Eckerd. Its clear water and abundance of manatees during part of the year are just a few reasons why the Eckerd College Waterfront has been taking students on trips there.
According to Savannah Currie, the recreational supervisor for the Waterfront, the freshwater springs of Crystal River maintain a fairly constant temperature year-round, making it a hotspot for manatees in Florida. Last November, the Waterfront took a trip to Crystal River and then returned to the sanctuary this month. Currie also said that Crystal River is a great place for paddling alongside the manatees.
First-year Mia Bennigson went on the most recent waterfront trip to Crystal River. Along with kayaking, sight-seeing and spotting manatees, the students were able to get out of the kayaks and swim in the river and springs.
“It was a super fun experience to see manatees that close up,” Bennigson said.
The manatee, Trichechus manatus, is one of the many marine mammals that live in Florida waters. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, manatees have been reclassified from endangered to threatened with the recent growth in population.
However, manatees still face many challenges, including boat strikes and habitat loss. Manatees are vegetarians that primarily eat seagrasses that grow close to shore. They often come into contact with boat traffic while they are trying to feed. They also enjoy hanging out by the output of wastewater treatment plants and other pipes that run into the ocean since it makes the temperature of the water warmer.
During the winter, as Florida ocean temperatures decrease, the manatees flock to Crystal River and other Florida springs because of their warm temperatures, allowing visitors see these creatures.
Although the waterfront does not plan on taking any more trips to Crystal River this semester, Currie said future trips to the river are a noteworthy experience for students to have.
“The trips we run are incredible,” Currie said. “We provide food, transportation and everything else needed for students to participate. The only things students need in order to come are a swim test and a $10 deposit, which is returned at the end of the trip, so this incredible experience is free.”
The website of Crystal River claims that nowhere else in the world can someone legally swim with manatees. After going over just a few rules on what not to do when swimming with and approaching manatees, visitors learn everything they need in order to safely be in the company of the manatees.
Manatees are very curious, gentle creatures and will often come up to snorkelers. Since human hair sometimes looks like seagrass, manatees often give visitors’ heads nibbles.
First-year Jack Kramer, who grew up in the St. Petersburg area, has visited Crystal River in the past. Along with seeing lots of freshwater fish, turtles and manatees, Kramer said he has gone to Crystal Springs to dive. However, visitors can only snorkel with manatees.
“It’s a river that has lots of movement,” Kramer said. “You can kind of just float and it’ll drag you along. So it’s a really nice, quick and easy dive.”
From 8 a.m. until sundown, the Crystal River manatee sanctuary is open to the public. Whether you plan on going to the area with the waterfront, by yourself or with a group of friends, there is always something to explore in this location just a couple hours north of Eckerd.