By LISA TANGER
April 16, 2008
Florida has been long-known as a metropolis for family vacations, complete with saltwater, sunshine and animals that frolic with children. However, a seismic shift in tourism is leading families away from the dazzling Magic Kingdom to the quiet waters of Citrus County. Modern American families looking for a budget-conscious, environmentally-aware vacation can head to Crystal River to make all their dreams come true for a fraction of the cost of a theme park get-away.
Crystal River, Fla., is home to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Every winter, the endangered West Indian manatee migrates out of the cool Gulf of Mexico into the spring-fed Crystal River. The constant 72° Fahrenheit water provides habitat for roughly 25 percent of the nation’s endangered manatee population, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
With the manatees come 100,000 visitors annually, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Crystal River visitors can snorkel or scuba with the manatee, kayak or canoe beside the manatee or simply gaze above the manatee from a pontoon boat.
Observer photo by LISA TANGER
A baby manatee – seen from a kayak – rests on its mother’s back as it surfaces for air.
In addition to the environmental considerations, families have financial incentives to pursue alternative vacations like manatee trips. For example, a family of four – two adults and two children – would pay $262 total for basic entry into one Walt Disney World theme park in Orlando. The same family of four can swim with manatees for $130, or spend less if just watching from the pontoon.
MANATEES ARE FAMILY FUN
Tour operators and wildlife advocates alike agree that January through March is the best time to see manatees in Florida. The average low air temperature in the Crystal River area during this time period is in the mid-forty degree range, and the average high is in the mid-seventy degree range, according to Intellicast.com.
Paul Cross, assistant manager of the dive shop at The Plantation Golf Resort & Spa, helps run one of the many manatee tours available in the area. The dive shop offers manatee tours, as well as individual rentals of kayaks, canoes, jon boats and pontoons. Cross described The Plantation as a family resort and said that he would recommend swimming with manatees as a family activity.
Observer photo by LISA TANGER
A manatee floats to the water’s surface.
“If you have a young one who knows how to snorkel and loves the water, they may be a perfect fit for this. Parents know their kids better than we do, and know how they are going to behave. If they think the kids will enjoy it, then give it a shot,” Cross said.
He noted the dive shop has wet suits that will fit 2-4-year-olds.
Swimming with manatees is safe, according to Cross. “Manatees have no natural predators, so they have no defense mechanism. They couldn’t hurt you if they wanted to,” Cross explained.
Tourists who worry about alligators more than manatees can set their fears aside. Cross said alligators view humans as their predators.
“We are out in the springs every day, so they are not going to make their home in the springs. Now, if you were going to go swimming in the murky back-channels, that may be a different story; you may run into an alligator. But that’s not where we find the manatees,” Cross said.
Katie Stahl, 18, lives in Wisconsin. She went to Crystal River with her family for the first time in 2007.
She said she did not know very much about manatees before the trip, just that they were endangered. Stahl and her group rented wetsuits and a jon boat from the Crystal Lodge Dive Center, and headed out early in the morning to swim with the manatees in Three Sisters Springs.
Observer photo by LISA TANGER
Katie Stahl snorkels as a manatee passes.
“It was exciting and kind of nerve-wracking. I didn’t really know what to expect; how they would act,” Stahl said.
She described the water as chilly and murky, like a swamp. “The worst part was just getting used to the water temperature,” she said.
Since it was difficult to see through the water, Stahl said she watched the surface of the water to spot the approach of a manatee.
“When one swims toward you, its tail makes ripples,” Stahl said. She described the manatees as very playful and smart, and estimated they are the size of a small car.
“They would sit across the [sanctuary] line and watch you,” Stahl said. She said the playful ones in the group would approach her and rub up against her.
Stahl said the best part of her trip was getting so close to the animals, noting this was the first time she had ever interacted with wildlife in natural habitat. Asked if she would recommend this trip for other teenagers, she responded with an unequivocal, “Absolutely. It was a fun experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.”
The Crystal River manatees are protected by an army of 35 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers who patrol the water by kayaks and canoes every day, according to Ivan Vicente, visitor services specialist for the federal agency. The volunteers work in the Manatee Watch program, which was designed in 1986 to protect the manatees and educate the public.
“I say this is the most challenging volunteer opportunity in the southeast in the conservation field. There are a lot of emotions out there on the water between those who want a no touch policy and those who are more flexible with what people should be able to do,” Vicente said. He said the volunteers often act as a mediator or referee between the opposing groups. “They make a heck of a difference.”
Fifteen local dive shops carry a special use permit to run manatee tours, according to Vicente. He said they all have a “very clean record,” noting none of them have received a ticket in the past five years.
Depending on the dive shop you choose, manatee tour amenities may include breakfast, on-board bathrooms, a covered and/or heated boat deck, an underwater camera or video of your manatee experience. Some tour operators add a surcharge to cover a charitable donation to Friends of Chassahowitzka, an organization that supports enforcement of manatee protection laws in the region.
WHERE TO STAY
Visitors will find that lodging in Crystal River offers the same low-key, easy-going character as the manatees that attract them there. National chains such as Best Western, Comfort Inn, Days Inn and Econo Lodge can be found. King’s Bay Lodge, The Plantation Inn & Golf Resort and The Port Hotel & Marina will offer more of a local flavor.
Best Western Crystal River Resort, 614 N.W. Hwy. 19
Comfort Inn, 4486 N. Suncoast Blvd.
Days Inn, 2380 N.W. Hwy. 19
Econo Lodge, 2575 N.W. Hwy. 19
King’s Bay Lodge, 506 N.W. 1st Ave.
The Plantation Inn & Golf Resort, 9301 W. Fort Island Trl.
The Port Hotel & Marina, 1610 S.E. Paradise Cir.
The manatee migration counts as high-season for accommodations in the area. Visitors will receive the best rates on weekdays.
WHERE TO EAT
While the town may be lacking Michelin and Zagat-rated restaurants, it can still satisfy a hungry family after a day of swimming with manatees. Crystal River is home to a number of national fast-food establishments, as well as local cuisine:
Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill
Chili’s Bar & Grill
Café on the Avenue
Charlie’s Fish House & Seafood
Checkers Drive-In Restaurant
Cody’s Original Roadhouse
Cracker’s Bar & Grill
Crystal River Wine & Cheese
The Cypress Room
Dan’s Clam Stand
El Ranchito Mexican Grill
Fat Boys’ Bar-B-Q
Florida Hearth and Home
Hungry Howie’s Pizza
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Little Caesar’s Pizza
Nicole’s Fine Dining
Olive Tree Restaurant
Rocco’s Pizza & Cafe
Romano’s Fine Italian Dining
Taste of Philly Sub Shop
Another cost-effective and family-friendly approach to meal-time would be to cook dinner in your suite if your accommodations include a dinette. Publix and Winn-Dixie supermarkets are only a short drive from lodging.
GETTING TO CRYSTAL RIVER
Crystal River is located 73 driving miles from Tampa International Airport.
Tampa International was home to 21 passenger airlines in 2007, including AirTran, American, Continental, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Midwest, Northwest, Southwest, Spirit, United and U.S. Airways, according to a fact sheet produced by the airport.
If Orlando International Airport is more convenient for you, the drive will be 97 miles to Crystal River. This airport will offer a slightly larger choice in carriers, having hosted 42 passenger airlines (excluding charters) in 2006 according to a fact sheet released by the airport.
General aviation planes are welcome at the Crystal River-Homosassa Airport, located less than three miles south of town.
Crystal River is accessible by private watercraft via Crystal Bay in the Gulf of Mexico.
SAVE THE MANATEES
Save the Manatee Club, based out of Maitland, Fla., estimates there are roughly 3,000 West Indian manatees left in the United States. In 2007, the club led a national campaign to oppose proposed federal down-listing of the manatee from endangered to threatened, according to Save the Manatee’s Web site. The club also sponsored kayak tours, hoping they would provide a less-invasive way to observe the manatees.
As the club’s Web site points out, West Indian manatees are protected in the United States under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal. The manatees are also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978.
Eco-tourism is among the fastest growing travel trends, according to the International Ecotourism Society, the world’s oldest and largest ecotourism organization. Eco-tourism includes eco-travel networks, green tourism, eco-volunteering trips, active sports programming, and environmentally-responsible tourism, according to the society.