A few months ago I had the wonderful opportunity to film a segment for the Travel Channel. The series is called Top Secret Swimming Holes. The show highlights ten different swimming holes from all around the word on each episode. However, these are not just any normal swimming holes. These are secret swimming holes tucked away, hard to find and sometimes even harder to get to. With places like Hawaii, Guam and Fiji on the list, the places they visit are spectacular. Who would have thought that somewhere like Crystal River would be highlighted on a worldwide show. As a native of Dunnellon, Florida, I have spent many days in Crystal River. Whether I was eating lunch at Crackers with my parents or out on the water with my friends, Crystal River has always been a nice place to go for some fun. As locals, we understand the treasures that hide in our small towns. One of the biggest of those treasures would be, Three Sisters Springs and the manatees it attracts. This is what the segment focuses on.
Even though I had visited Crystal River many times and thought I knew the area pretty well, I had only been to Three Sisters once before I filmed this segment. My parents, sister and I went to the Manatee festival about a month before to enjoy a family day and see the manatees. The festival is a lot of fun! You can find food, drinks and knick-knacks galore. There is a beer garden for those over 21 and a nice area for kids. While at the festival, you can take a shuttle over to Three Sisters to see the gathering of manatees.
Three Sisters springs is located off of King’s Bay and is a part of a National Wildlife Refuge. This is the only spring in King’s Bay that is accessible by land. During parts of the year you can swim here and enjoy the wonderful natural area, but from November 15 to March 31 the spring is closed to humans and is a manatee sanctuary. When the springs are closed, you can still view the manatees from a boat or from in the water outside of the sanctuary area. West Indian manatees travel hundreds of miles to find refuge in Crystal River during the winter because there is plenty of vegetation and the water is a nice 72 degrees Fahrenheit all year long.
When I got the call about the segment I was super excited. I had never filmed for a television series before, and I had never gotten the chance to swim with manatees. The call time was 5:30am. We, the cast, cameraman and his assistant, met at The Plantation in Crystal River. The Plantation is a resort located on the water. It has a golf course, bar and grill and also offers boat tours along with manatee tours.
We chartered a boat from The Plantation, got into our wet suits and met our captain. Our captain’s name was John Spann and he was great! Not only was he friendly and helpful, but also he was so knowledgeable. He definitely made the experience a great one. It was an early morning and it was pretty chilly, so on the boat Captain John made us all manatee mochas (coffee mixed with hot cocoa) to enjoy while we searched for the manatees. Since it was still a little dark outside, we had a few false sightings. We would see a log floating or a big rock and get tricked into thinking it was a manatee. It was not.
When we got to Three Sisters, we were not tricked. The manatees there were real and incredible. There was so many of them. Captain John gave us our snorkel gear and briefed us on what to do and what not to do. He told us to stay as still as possible and only use our arms to guide us through the water. The manatees can pick up even the smallest vibrations and will not approach you if you are making too much noise or too many movements. He also told us not to reach out and touch them. If the manatee comes up to you and starts to rub against you that is ok, but you cannot actively try to touch them. When swimming with the manatees, you must be a passive observer. Do not chase the manatees, swim right on top of them or actively pursue them in any way. If the manatee feels comfortable around you, it will come up to you and start loving on you.
Since we got out on the water early, we were the only ones at Three Sisters. It was a quiet morning. As soon as we got in the water, the manatees approached us. They are such large animals that move through the water extremely slowly, partly because they have no natural predators. The manatees graze along the bottom of the river or spring and enjoy themselves. Once in the water, you can see the marks from propellers on the thick, grey skin of the animal. You will also, most likely, see some algae on the manatee.
Even though the manatees are such large creatures, they are gentle and seem to be pretty loving. They will be curious about you, maybe even nuzzle you. I had a manatee come up to me and chew on my snorkel…while it was in my mouth! Then it nuzzled me all along my side and brushed up against me. It was such an incredible experience.
We saw a mom and calf swimming together and a ton of other manatees just enjoying the water. On manatee played with our anchor rope for about 30 minutes. It was a cute and enchanting site. To see a huge animal playing with a rope…you had to be there. After we spent some time with the manatees, we swam into the springs and enjoyed the scenery. From land, the springs are beautiful, but from under water it is a whole new world. There are small springs where the water bubbles up from the ground, plant life and many fish. In the deepest of the three large springs, there is an area where you can make water rings. If you are a nature lover, you must visit this area.
While we were interacting with the manatees, we had a cameraman following us the entire time. He captured the interactions on his underwater camera and directed us on what to do to make the shot better. We conducted short interviews about our experiences and all had a great time.
If you want to visit Three Sisters and swim with the manatees, I highly recommend getting a tour from The Plantation. They have been doing this a long time and know exactly where and when to go to spot manatees. If you are interested in kayaking, you can put your kayaks in at the boat ramp and make the 20-25 minute trip to Three Sisters and enjoy the area on your own, same for boaters. I highly recommend getting there early to beat the crowds. The area is so beautiful and completely amazing, especially when you have it all to yourself.
Keep checking in to see what I am up to next!