Your Family's Gotta Try This: Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Rich in native plants and one-of-a-kind species, Florida is well-stocked with ways to experience the wild.
The state is home to more than 1,000 natural springs, 825 miles of beaches, three national forests and the only extensive coral reefs in the continental United States.
For a soul-satisfying break, become one with the great outdoors in one of these Florida-made moments.
1. Meet a manatee
It’s a humbling, pinch-me-now encounter to get snorkel-to-snout with a 1,500-pound, 10-foot-long sea mammal in its natural environment. Florida’s temperate waterways are hot hangout spots for more than 6,000 manatees, but Crystal River Wildlife Refuge, north of Tampa, is the only place in the United States where you can legally swim with the gentle giants.
Between November and April, the glorious, warm-water springs of Crystal River and Homosassa attract the highest natural concentration of manatees in the world. There are dozens of tour companies that offer manatee tours, including Plantation on Crystal River, where visitors can stay overnight and book a three-hour adventure.
Don’t wade in without reviewing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s advice video, “Manatee Manners,” that encourages respectful, passive observation of the peaceful sea cows.
2. Pedal past an alligator
Floridians coexist with more than 1 million alligators, so it is not uncommon to find the reptiles sunning alongside roadways and paths, particularly in Everglades National Park, the largest tropical wilderness in the United States.
Wild gators are prolific in the park’s Shark Valley, west of Miami, where a remote, 15-mile trail loop can be explored on foot, a two-hour tram tour or a bicycle, with rentals available at the visitor’s center. A two- to three-hour cycle on the paved path will take you past great blue herons, spoonbills, ibises, wood storks, white pelicans and, yes, slithering swamp dwellers.
Keep a safe distance (rangers recommend at least 15 feet). There is a reward for all that pedaling: A 45-foot observation tower midway along the path offers spectacular, panoramic views of Florida’s River of Grass.
3. Ride a horse on the beach
Fairy tales do come true. Galloping along a pristine beach with shore breezes in your face isn’t just a dream. There are a half-dozen spots throughout Florida that allow beach horseback rides that even beginners can enjoy.
From the hard-packed sand of Hutchinson Island near South Florida in St. Lucie County to the Gulf Coast views of Cape San Blas in northwest Florida, equestrian fantasies are regularly turned into reality. Saddle up with a tour company using this guide for horseback riding on the beach.
4. “Shellebrate” nature’s gifts
Walking along the water’s edge, searching for natural treasures, is a therapeutic pastime in Florida, where shells, colored glass, sea beans, eggs and other beach bounty await discovery.
Among Florida’s many beachcombing spots, Sanibel Island is regarded as the best shelling location in North America by Travel + Leisure magazine. Shell lovers make pilgrimages from all over the world so they can hunch into the “Sanibel Stoop” along Southwest Florida’s shores.
Sanibel’s curved shape, along with strong Gulf of Mexico currents and a broad underwater shelf, make it a shell-laden paradise carpeted with pastel coquinas, conchs, cockles, whelks and tulip shells. Beachcombing is such a pastime here that some local hotels offer rooms equipped with special sinks and worktables. Collect sparingly and pay attention to seashell preservation laws, which forbid the taking of live mollusks (throw them back!) and protect sand dollars, starfish and sea urchins.
5. Paddle through glowing plankton
Rocket launches aren’t the only other-worldly phenomena that leave glowing trails on the Space Coast of Florida.
From May to November, billions of plankton in the lagoon waters of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Titusville emit a blue-green glow underwater when they are disturbed, making this one of the few places in the world where people can see bioluminescent dinoflagellates in nature.
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