For my birthday this year, I crossed something major off of my bucket list: swimming with the manatees. Who doesn’t love manatees!? Their lovable appearance and peculiar mannerisms are irresistible to me! This marine mammal gets the nickname “gentle giant” because they are slow moving, weigh more than 800 pounds, and are extremely friendly with humans. Looking at photos of their wrinkled faces, stubby whiskers & little flipper arms made me instantly want to meet them. So on one of the coldest days of the year, Andres and I took the trip of a lifetime about 2 hours west of Orlando in a rural, less-developed area of Florida that’s better known as the Nature Coast. If you are looking for an outdoor adventure that doesn’t break the bank, then this one is for you!
Camping at the Chassahowitzka Campground:
On Sunday, we arrived at the Chassahowitzka River Campground, and set out for Three Sisters Springs the following morning, which is only a half hour drive north. One of the perks of the campground we chose is that it’s centrally located to several other beautiful destinations. About 20 miles north is Crystal River, which is where we went swimming with the manatees. 20 miles south is Weeki Wachee Springs, a gorgeous spring-fed river and home to the historic and fun underwater “mermaid” show. The campground’s location isn’t as remote as some of the others places we’ve camped, so forgetting something isn’t a big deal. There is a Publix at the major intersection 2 miles away, along with many other stores and restaurants.
Nestled on the eastern end of the 6.5 mile long Chassahowitzka River, this 40 acre campground offers 28 primitive tent sites surrounded by big oak & tall pine trees. To get to the campground, follow the tree lined road to the very end, and you’ll find a double boat ramp and dock on a spring fed lagoon. To the right is the camp store where you’ll check in for your campsite. The store sells snacks and supplies, including ice, firewood, bait and tackle. Firewood is pretty expensive, so I recommend bringing your own. The campsites do not offer direct views of the river, but it’s a very short walk down to the dock area.
Each site is equipped with a fire ring, picnic table, and plenty of shade. For tent campers, the only “bathrooms” available in the area are port-a-potties, but make sure to bring your own toilet paper. You’ll also have access to the shower house and bathrooms in the RV area, but it’s a short walk from your campsite. When planning out which campsite to reserve, choose one that isn’t right next to the communal water spigots and trash cans. Because there isn’t a dish washing station, people have to rinse their plates and pots at the water spigots, and that attracts all types of critters. There is a flourishing community of raccoons living on this campground, so keep your food secure at all times. I woke up during our first night to find three of them warming their hands by our fire, two hanging out on the picnic table, and a few more lurking around in the shadows. I quickly learned that I had to just ignore them and go back to sleep.
The campground is open 7 days a week, year-round, except for Christmas Day, and you can make your camping reservations via credit card by calling 1-352-382-2200. Primitive Camping Reservations cost $23.00 per night for 2 people. For every additional person in your group, an extra $5.00 per person is added to your daily camping fee. The address to the campground is 8600 W Miss Maggie Dr, Homosassa, FL 34448.
If camping isn’t your thing, there is a pretty bed & breakfast around the corner called the Chassahowitzka Hotel. It is within walking distance to the campground’s boat launch, and is owned and operated by fourth generation Floridians. Rates run between $80 to $100 per night. For large groups, you can also rent the whole place for $600 per night and it sleeps 18, which ends up being $34 per person.
Exploring the Chassahowitzka River:
Chaz-a-who? It’s a good thing you don’t have to be able to pronounce the name of this river to love it. The Chas, as locals call it, remains a longtime favorite among paddlers, swimmers, photographers & nature lovers who just appreciate Florida. The river has two distinct environments. The first three miles is surrounded by the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge, and is dominated by spring-fed tributaries, including Seven Sisters Spring, Salt Creek, Potter Creek and Baird Creek. Because it’s a spring fed, the water is gin clear, and maintains a 72 degree temperature year-round. The western three miles of the river is more open with expansive views and fluctuating tides. Clusters of hardwood swamps, salt marshes and oyster bars support a variety of wildlife. The views are beautiful and provide a sense of being lost in a deep, bio-rich, jungle full of wildlife and water as far as the eye can see.
The campground’s public boat ramp provides access to the river. Paddlers are likely to observe manatees, turtles, alligators, otters, and dolphins. We also saw a variety of birds, including egrets, herons, and buzzards.
300 feet upstream (east) from the boat ramp, past the rope swing and down the first side creek on the left is where you’ll find Seven Sisters Springs, a popular swimming hole for locals. Many people miss this beautiful series of springs because they start paddling downriver. Andres and I caught a glimpse of a deer grazing along the bank as we were passing by.
After leaving this spring, retrace your route back past the boat launch and head west down river. Within 100 yards you will see Crab Creek on the north side, which is one of the many spring sourced creeks that feed the Chas. About a half mile further, you will see another creek entrance to your left. This is the mouth of Baird Creek, one of the best streams to explore! To make sure you’re going the right way, keep your eyes peeled for a tiny island with palm trees marking the pathway. After paddling down the narrow, windy, overgrown waterway for about 20 minutes, you will come to a large open lagoon, known as Blue Springs. This is a great place to relax and have a nice picnic.
Be on the lookout for the small opening on the right side that will allow you to access “The Crack,” a natural spring rising from a crack in the limestone. With a shallow route to navigate, you’ll most likely have to beach your kayak and walk the last 100 feet or so to the spring. It’s a perfect swimming area complete with a rope swing, and you may have the place all to yourself if you’re lucky. It’s at least an hour detour off the Chas to visit The Crack, but it is well worth it. Retrace your route when you leave, and continue downstream towards the Gulf of Mexico.
As you paddle downstream, the river widens and you pass fishing shacks, sunken boats and plenty of wildlife. In about 2.5 miles, you’ll see a sign marking the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, the river is open and unshaded from there on. If you keep paddling, you’ll reach the Gulf in another three or four miles, and, just before it, Dog Island, a recreation area with a restroom and dock.
In the eastern 3 miles of the Chas, you are likely to catch freshwater fish and some crossover species, such as large-mouth Bass, Bluegill, Mangrove Snapper, and Sheephead.
Along the western half of the river, as you get closer to the Gulf, you will find the environment to be geared more toward saltwater fishing, and the predominant targets will be the magnificent Redfish as well as Snook.
Canoe, kayak, and paddle board rentals are available at the dock by the camp store. Canoe and kayak rentals cost $35 per day, and paddle board rentals are $40 per day.
To park your vehicle after launching, the cost is $7 with a trailer and $5 without one (for kayaks, canoes, etc). The entire river is only 1 to 4 feet deep in the channel, and generally prohibitive to larger vessels, especially considering the risk it brings to the manatees who live there. There are usually some swimming and grazing within 50 yards of the launch, so use caution.
Visiting Three Sisters Springs
Fed by more than 70 springs , the 600 acre King’s Bay is home to the second largest group of springs in Florida. The bay is the point of origin for Crystal River, which flows for seven miles until it meets the Gulf of Mexico at Crystal Bay. Manatees can be found in King’s Bay year round due to the consistent 72 degree water temperature. Crystal River is a special place for the manatees because it supplies them with food, freshwater, and protection. Between November 15 to March 31, the populations are so high throughout the area that it becomes a winter refuge for the gentle giants. Summer months allow kayaks and canoes to be taken into the spring. During the winter, however, water access is limited to swimming only, so you have to tie up your kayak or canoe to the right of the spring’s entrance. Just be sure to avoid entering the marked off areas near the mouth of the spring and deeper areas inside the spring. These zones prohibit any human activity.
Now, I mentioned earlier that it was one of the coldest days of the year that we decided to go to Three Sisters Springs, and that is no exaggeration. We woke up to 31 degree weather on that January morning and our fair share of doubts about kayaking and swimming in such frigid temperatures. As the cold air rushed through our tent, not even the promise of swimming with my beloved manatees was brightening my spirits. I knew Andres was secretly hoping I’d regain my sanity and suggest that we just come back another day. We were pretty quiet as we packed up our camp, and continued to question whether or not we should see our day’s plans through. After defrosting my toes by the fire, my determination reignited, and I knew we couldn’t pass up this opportunity. I knew that cold weather was the best time to swim with the manatees. We were too close to turn back now.
There are many shops and guide services that offer guided tours to swim with manatees, but you can accomplish this all on your own and save yourself $100 while you’re at it. We brought our kayak with us, and launched it at Captain Mike’s Kayak Rental for a $ 15 fee ($5 to launch & $10 to park). You can also rent kayaks directly from Captain Mike’s by calling 352-364-5557. They charge $35 for a single kayak and $55 for a tandem. Considering the weather, we didn’t hesitate to rent wetsuits for $12 a piece. Any equipment rented from Captain Mike’s must be returned by 4:30PM, and if they have to come find you on the water in one of their kayaks, there is a hefty late fee involved. Before you head out on your adventure, they provide you with a map and have you watch a short, informative Manatee Manners Video for tips on how to swim with the manatees. The film explains the importance of floating on top of the water to avoid disturbing the sandy bottom of their deep blue sanctuary.
If you have your own kayak, snorkel and wetsuit (or just don’t need one), you can launch for free at Hunter Springs Park or King’s Bay Park. You’ll just be paddling south on Crystal River to reach the spring, as opposed to traveling north like you would from Captain Mike’s. Both parks charge a parking fee of $5 per day.
As we launched our kayak and began the journey to the spring, I remember watching the steam rise from the water as we paddled down Crystal River. You’ll pass by King’s Spring to the left near Banana Island, and Parker Island to the right pretty early on in your paddle. Further down, you’ll also see Buzzard Island on your left. The main landmark you want to look for is the bridge on your right, which you’ll paddle right under and continue upstream. Soon you’ll see tour boats, snorkelers, and, oh yes, manatees floating around. Turn left at the end of the channel, and paddle a short distance further to the mouth of the spring. It’s about a 4 mile paddle that takes around 20 to 30 minutes. You’ll probably see more manatees in Crystal River than you will in the actual spring, so go slow and look around in the water. Also, keep an eye out for calm, flat areas in the water that often indicate a manatee is just below the surface.
Once you arrive at the spring, you’ll see two pylons on either side of the entrance, which only permit kayaks/canoes and swimmers. On the day we went, the spring had been closed very early that morning. Over 400 manatees were seeking out the spring’s warming temperatures. Because many of the manatees had left for the day, it was reopened by the time we arrived, and we were able to swim past the concrete pylons at the entrance. I remember the initial struggle of convincing myself to jump in the water while my breath still formed a crisp cloud each time I exhaled. Once I found the courage to go completely underwater, the warm spring water actually felt good in contrast to the crisp outside air. We swam for nearly an hour, and it was one of the best hours of my life.
Seeing these giant animals three times my size swim past me so gracefully was an unforgettable experience. Despite the activity of other snorkelers around us, there was silence when I submerged into the water. Upon our descent, 12 to 14 manatees were suspended in the calming waters at the mouth of the spring. Some were still sleeping while others were slow-paddling around. It was absolute magic. Because of the shallow, crystal clear water, the experience was not difficult or intimidating at all. I felt an abundance of energy and satisfied curiosity as I observed these amazing mammals.
Ironically, there wasn’t one manatee in the actual spring, but it was beautiful nonetheless, a rare freshwater spring that has never been developed and still features natural lush vegetation around its vivid, crystal clear turquoise waters. After exploring Three Sisters, we ventured back to spend more time with the group of seacows hanging out at the mouth of the spring.
When you see a manatee, you are better off letting it come to you than going to it. They are very curious creatures, especially the calves, so it’s not unusual for them to approach you. In the GoPro video I included below, you’ll see a clip of a young manatee slowly chasing my feet around the bottom of the river. I think it liked the sparkly turquoise color of my toenails. Also keep in mind that it needs to be cold for them to group up in large numbers around the springs. During warmer temps, they are spread out all over Crystal River and the Gulf of Mexico. The large pontoon boats used by local tour groups can’t access the narrow inlets and springs. You’re likely to see a lot more manatees from a kayak or canoe than on the boats they use. Don’t be surprised if you also come across river otters near the shore or a flock of birds floating by you. The only thing you need to bring on your kayak is your snorkel mask, a bottle of water, and a dry bag with a towel.
For non-swimmers, who would rather not get so up close and personal with the manatees, you can observe the manatees from the boardwalk at Three Sisters Spring State Park.
We definitely had our doubts about snorkeling in such cold weather, but the overall experience was breathtaking. After swimming around for nearly an hour, the warmth of the spring water had worn off, our fingers were pruney and lips were turning a deep shade of blue. We got on our kayak, and paddled back to Captain Mike’s. Dry towels were draped over our soaked wetsuits, and we shivered with every stroke. Taking off my wetsuit and changing into a dry pair of clothes instantly made me feel better. The awesomeness of it all started to hit me around the same time that I regained feeling in my hands. One of the biggest benefits to visiting any Florida spring is awareness. Once you have swam next to a mother manatee and her newborn calf in the wild, it is inconceivable as to why anyone would hurt them. Like many visitors, I left with this place with unforgettable memories and an even deeper support of protecting these kind, friendly creatures for generations to come. Truth be told, swimming with manatees in their natural environment was a life altering experience and the best possible way to celebrate my birthday.
Check Out My GoPro Video of Our Adventure: