I’ve always had a love for manatees, the ‘sea cows’ that wander the canals and rivers in west Central Florida.
When we had a boat, we would go out to Homosassa to ride alongside the gentle giants in the winter or go visit the springs where they congregate to keep warm.
But somehow, I have never been to the actual Manatee Festival in Crystal River, so when a friend suggested we go there this year, I jumped at the chance.
It really didn’t disappoint, and I would recommend everyone to face the crowds because it’s a really great day out — and educational, too,
We got there by 10 a.m., and it was already very busy. The Crystal River town center was completely shut off to allow for the hundreds of vendors to set-up, so we parked at the shopping mall just out of town and took a shuttle bus to the festivities.
My sister-in-law Julie is here from England and she has never seen a manatee in the wild before, so we decided to start our day by catching a different shuttle bus to take us just over a mile down the road to the world famous Three Sisters Springs, where the manatees are congregated to keep warm in the winter months.
Manatees can’t tolerate long periods of time in water temperatures of 68 degrees and below, so they swim to the springs that stay a consistent 72 degrees Fahrenheit year round. This makes for the perfect warm haven for the manatees to swim during the sometimes chilly Florida months.
Around Three Sisters Springs is a horseshoe shaped boardwalk, with plenty of places to spot the manatees, and a new visitors’ center to learn all about them.
Also, for the festival weekend there were plenty of volunteers to answer questions, of which we had many. For example, we learned that there are dozens of manatees who have set up home at Three Sisters this year and as we walked slowly around the boardwalk, we stopped frequently to watch the manatees huddled together just below the surface of the water.
What an amazing sight it was to behold — all snuggled together, occasionally raising their heads above the water for air, then going back down below to rest. They are such big animals. Adults typically grow to at least nine feet and a hefty 1,000 pounds.
For me and my sister-in-law, this was definitely a bucket list trip. While we were there, we saw kayakers and swimmers in the water with the manatees in the canals next to Three Sisters, being very careful not to get too close, but who were jubilant when one manatee swam close.
I thought how peaceful it would be to be so close to these beautiful animals and also thankful that I get to see them in my own backyard, just an hour and a half drive away from Clermont. A swim with the manatees is now on my bucket list.
After an hour spent taking pictures, we decided to go back into Crystal River on one of the shuttle buses. We were dropped off at the front of the festival, where we paid just $5 to get in which gave us access to dozens of food trucks and vendors selling everything from homemade honey to clothes, jewelry and arts and crafts.
For anyone who loves food trucks, this was paradise. We tried hot, sugary mini donuts, pretzel bites tossed in garlic and parmesan cheese, giant empanadas and loaded nachos with pulled chicken, beans and cheese. We were so full after grazing our way around the festival that we didn’t have room to try other foods, of which there were plenty of choices.
It took us a fun couple of hours to make our way around the festival, so we missed the glass bottom boat trips, which we definitely will take at a later visit.
As far as a day trip out, this was a perfect way to learn about the manatees and to support their continued welfare.
My sister-in-law was duly impressed.
“It was so great seeing the manatees. We don’t have them in England and it is just amazing that you can see them so clearly in their natural habitat,” she said. “I will cherish this memory for a very long time and when I visit Florida again I will definitely go back for more.”
ABOUT THE FESTIVAL
The Florida Manatee Festival takes place every January in downtown Crystal River and is organized by the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, to integrate local businesses and organizations that support the manatees and the area’s tourism industry.
Monies raised at the event goes back into the community to help nonprofits in Citrus county, particularly those concerned with the welfare of the manatees.