We were pretty pumped for day two of our #SunshineStateScuba road trip — because we were getting back in the water! On the agenda for the day? Freediving with manatees in the Crystal River before hopping over to the Rainbow River for one of Florida’s most beloved drift dives.
Our day got off to a very rough start. Our first night of camping went nothing like expected as we discovered the camper we rented was a total dud.
After a semi-sleepless night, we’d set our alarms for 5:30am to try to hit Wal Mart looking for trailer-fixing solutions, which had been a bust. By the time we rolled up at Crystal River Watersports at 8am, I felt like I’d already done an entire day’s worth of running around.
Luckily, they had just the thing to cure me: the lure of a possible manatee encounter.
Sidenote: One of the very cool things about my reader meetup in St. Pete back in June had been meeting some lovely fellow dive enthusiasts who I invited to join Heather and me for this day of fun. The more the merrier when it comes to meeting manatees, so it was a blast to have Alex in Wanderland reader Brittany along!
Now, those familiar with Florida’s favorite mammal are probably thinking, manatee tours in August? That can’t be ideal. It’s true — the winter months are far more conducive to spotting the big blubbery babes. My last trip to snorkel with manatees had been in December, and I still count it as one of the greatest animal encounters of my life! I knew that this one was likely to be quite different and kept my expectations managed. After all, according to Crystal River Wastersport’s handy guide, we were only hitting one of three points in the trifecta of a perfect manatee encounter:
Manatee Sighting Quick Guide
• Cold: more manatees
• Weekday: fewer people on the water
• Mornings: manatees more active
Still, I was under the impression that sighting manatees at all in the summer was a gamble and was impressed to learn that not seeing any manatees at all is quite rare. So rare, in fact, that if you don’t see any at all, Crystal River Watersports will reschedule you for a second trip for free.
Luckily, we wouldn’t have to worry about that raincheck. After a boat ride out to Hunter Springs, we heard from the other manatee tour boats in the small bay that there were several manatees kicking around.
While the visibility was less than ideal, we excitedly donned masks and snorkels and jumped in! The first manatee we encountered was a little shy and didn’t stick around for long, but that was fine — these encounters are designed to be fun for everyone, sea cows included.
Plus, it wasn’t long before a mama and her calf came over and really took a shining to us. The different tour operators are really good about working together not to overwhelm the manatees and to make sure all of their guests have good experiences, so they are pretty respectful about not sending over a second group when one is already have having an interaction. Ergo, Heather, Brittany, our guide Mike and I had this pair all to ourselves.
Sadly, it was on this trip that my beloved Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing finally died for good. They’d been giving me trouble for a long time and I had considered replacing them ahead of this trip but thought I could get one more round out of them. Not so.
Still, with Heather in the water with her much superior camera, I was able to mostly temper my disappointment and accept that this trip I’d be learning to live in the moment sans camera! I only died a little bit inside occasionally, like when the baby manatee surfaced twice and made long, lingering eye contact with me out of it’s one big side-eye. We had a moment!
Brittany and a manatee, however, had an even more intimate encounter. I gasped through my snorkel when I saw one approaching her closer and closer until finally… it latched onto her boob! And it didn’t even buy her a drink first. Let’s just say a significant amount of water was swallowed while we all drowned in giggles from that one.
From the eye contact to the cuddles to the mouse-like little squeaks the baby manatee made, which I’d never heard before, we were all thrilled.
Oh, and if you dive addicts are wondering why we weren’t on scuba gear, it’s banned to scuba dive with manatees in most parts of Florida. Regardless, the bubbles are said to scare them off anyway, and you’ll get plenty close snorkeling and freediving.
When the manatees eventually swam off, we climbed aboard and headed for our next snorkel destination, Three Sisters Spring. This is actually where my previous manatee tour had taken place, as it’s an incredibly popular winter refuge for the manatees seeking the consistently temperatured waters of the springs. Other times of the year, they seek food and warm waters elsewhere. While they can occasionally be spotted here in the summer, it’s rare.
Swimming back into the springs, it was hard to imagine the small area filled with over four hundred manatees, as was recorded in January 2016. If you do visit in the winter, keep in mind that Three Sisters Spring is closed for scuba diving and to paddle, kayak and boat access from Nov. 15 – March 31. At that time of year, you can swim in on scuba gear only.
On this August Sunday, the springs were packed with people and as expected, no manatees. But we’d already had our amazing encounters, and thus enjoyed freediving and playing in the crystal clear spring waters.
Leaving Three Sisters Springs, we headed back to the dive shop to meet Leslie, another diver from the reader meetup who was meeting us for the afternoon’s adventures. As we regaled her with tales of our morning, we debated the general consensus on whether it’s worth it to take a manatee tour in the summer.
In the summer at Hunter Springs you’ll find manatees but you won’t find great visibility, and at Three Sisters Spring, you’ll find great visibility but probably no manatees. In the winter, the manatees flock to Three Sisters, so you get the best of both worlds.
Hence, if you live local and have the flexibility to go any time, choose the winter. If you’re a photographer and capturing amazing images is your main priority, choose the winter. But if you happen to be in Florida in the summer, don’t hesitate to go hang with manatees. From Crystal River to the Space Coast, it turns out you can always find manatees in Florida!
With a fabulous morning under our belts, Heather and I dashed off on more failed attempted at RV repairs while Crystal River set us up for our afternoon dive. Ugh. But after mentioning we were camping that night in Williston, Florida, our dive guide helpfully suggested we drive our own vehicle to the dive site, which it turns out was halfway between Crystal River and Williston. Sweet!
Our next stop was Rainbow River, arguably Florida’s most beloved drift dive. We caravaned an easy thirty minutes to a county park named K.P. Hole, where our divemaster helped us gear up and explained the way the dive shuttle we’d be hopping aboard worked. We’d board with nothing except what was coming with us in the water, and the boat would shuttle us upstream. Then we’d leap off and drift dive back to the starting point.
Leslie was sticking to snorkel gear due to a sinus infection, and due to a gear issue (considering bad things come in threes and we’d already had car problems and camera problems, there had to be one more), Heather and I decided to swap gear halfway and take turns snorkeling with Leslie for the rest. Creative problem solving at its best!
It was actually kind of nice to get both experiences. With a maximum depth of 25 feet, much of Rainbow River is shallow enough to enjoy as a snorkel and it was the perfect depth for practicing my freediving breath holds.
Since my camera was out of commission, I pulled out a rarely used piece of gear in my photography arsenal: my GoPro HERO3+. I mostly reserve my GoPro for crazy adventures like white water rafting and cliff hang gliding and in fact had never before used it for a diving trip!
After looking at my results from this dive I was much more impressed with the video footage than the photo stills and stuck to shooting video for the rest of our dives (the results of which you’ll see in my final post!) While it would have obviously been ideal to have my normal underwater setup functioning for this trip, looking at the bright side, it was cool to challenge myself to trying something new — and luckily I had Heather to pick up the slack with her underwater dSLR housing!
We had been warned about crowds at Rainbow River, especially on a Sunday, but our running behind for the day turned out to be a blessing in disguise — we had the river entirely to ourselves.
This was such a fun, carefree dive with a surprising amount to see. There were cute little turtles everywhere, as well as birds diving down below the surface of the water to look for a snack. Fish darted through the wispy river grass, and sand boils bubbled up, reminding us of the active springs feeding the waterway.
Now, in theory this seems like it would be an easy dive to do without a dive guide. However, there was one very particular reason we’d decided to hire one, and I’d recommend all new divers to the area to do the same — you have to know when to get out of the water!
If you miss the dock at K.P. Hole at the end of the drift, you’re in big trouble. Not only will it be tricky to find another safe place to exit the water, but if you do you’ll be trespassing on private land, and have to find some way to drag yourself back to your car. So yeah. You do not want to miss that exit point! If we’d attempted this dive solo, I think I would have spent the entire second half nervously frantically my head above the surface to look around. Diving with a guide meant we could totally relax — and he pointed out some great stuff to us, too.
I loved Rainbow River! I also got giddy when I saw there was a Rainbow Springs State Park campground right across the river from K.P. Hole — how cool would it be to do a diving and camping trip where you could pretty much roll out of your tent and into the dive site? I might even feel comfortable enough to break my night dive fast here.
One thing is for sure: with its proximity to Tampa, I doubt this will be the last time I dive Rainbow River.
What a fun day of exploring the Crystal and Rainbow Rivers with Crystal River Watersports and friends new and old! From sunset boat tours to scalloping supplies, this small, family-owned shop offers just about everything there is worth doing in the Crystal River area.
Their prices are higher than some others in the area but you get what you pay for with small, personalized groups — on our morning manatee tour, we had a private tour for three while the other two boats we saw appeared to have well over a dozen guests. We definitely would not have had such memorable interactions or got such great photos if we’d been in such large groups. Crystal River Watersports charges $65 for their manatee tour and $75 for a guided dive to Crystal River.
With both rivers an easily day trip distance from Tampa and Orlando, this is one day no nature lover visiting the Sunshine State should miss.
Have you been lucky enough to meet a manatee? Would you do a drift dive down Rainbow River? Spill in the comments below!
HURRICANE IRMA UPDATE: While the shop was spared any hurricane damage and tours are operating as usual, tourist traffic is way down following negative media coverage from Irma. Go give Crystal River businesses your support and enjoy the lighter crowds than usual!
Many thanks to Crystal River Watersports for hosting Heather and I! As always, you receive my honest thoughts, full opinions and bad jokes regardless of who is footing the bill. Many thanks to Heather for all the photos I appear in throughout this post.