Greetings From…Crystal River, Florida

By Michael Boyink, mike@douglascountyherald.com

“Where was your favorite place?” 

That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

Crystal River, Florida.

So many things could influence our experience in a place. Weather. Traffic. Health. Attitudes. Hype.

There were places friends raved about that we couldn’t wait to leave (Sedona, AZ).  And there were backwater, unheard-of spots we lingered in because we kept finding more to do (Kinston, NC).

But sometimes? We got exactly what we wished for. And more.

One of those places was Crystal River, Florida. We went there for one reason. 

To swim with manatees.

We weren’t morning creatures. But the manatees were, so I scheduled us for a 6 a.m. tour. 

The day and time came. We got up early and made the drive in. We watched a training video. We donned wet suits. We boarded a boat and went to a known manatee hangout. The captain threw out his anchor and shut the boat’s motor off.

And then we encountered it. It rose up like a sea monster between our seats in the boat and the water.

Miranda Boyink pets a manatee calf in Crystal River, Florida.

Fear.

Not of the manatees. They are gentle grass-eating giants.

The fear was of drowning. One of our family had held it for a long time. It wasn’t a “can’t put my face in the shower spray” level of fear, but it was strong enough to have kept us from ever snorkeling. 

We had discussed it before booking the tour. They wanted to overcome it.  This was a good place to do it. We had an experienced instructor. We had the gear. We were in a protected, inland, fresh-water cove. We had the boat to retreat back to.

And manatees awaited.

One by one, we sat on the edge of the boat, put flippers on our feet, masks over our eyes, snorkels into our mouths, pool noodles under our arms, and slipped into the water.

Slowly, arched backs went prone. Raised heads relaxed into the water. Breathing became regular. We floated on our bellies and swam in circles, letting our eyes adjust to the underwater light.

I made eye contact with an adult manatee the size of a VW bus. It swam my way. I floated in place, reminding myself that it was an herbivore. 

As it neared, it dipped and went underneath me. I stretched out my hand and brushed its rough,  leather-like back as it swam past. 

Turning, I saw one of our group having a special moment with a manatee calf. It wasn’t until Miranda’s grinning face popped out of the water that I realized it had been her.

All too soon it was over. We were heading back on the boat, shivering under beach towels and anxious for dry clothes.

But we had done what we came to do. 

We had swum with manatees, yes. 

But better than that?

We had overcome fear.   

There are multiple manatee tour companies in Crystal River, Florida. We were happy with our experience at River Ventures. Find them online at riverventures.com.