While our boat is small, it was still too large to check as luggage on our flight, so we met up with Captain Stacey Dunn in Crystal River, Florida. Stacey holds her 50 Ton Masters license, but since retiring spends her time on Manatee Conservation and sharing the unique wonders of the Kings Bay area with visitors through her company Manatees in Paradise.
We climbed aboard Stacey’s ship-shape Sweetwater pontoon, and were soon headed across the shallow bay. To our left were waterside houses each equipped with docks and boat-lifts, sporting everything from big off-shores like Scarabs and Scouts to kayaks, Carolina Skiffs and other shallow draft boats perfect for navigating the shallow reaches of the bay. To the right were mangrove and willow islands and grass lands snaking with channels. The bay itself is very shallow, often only 3′ to 4′ deep, laced through with a deeper channel that allows larger boats and sailing boats access. At about 650 acres the bay isn’t big, but the way it winds around, you can quickly forget that.
The water is brackish, with the crystal river and underground springs feeding in fresh water at a constant temperature. Usually the flow is strong enough that it flushes much of the salt out, but with several years of recent drought conditions, the salinity has risen. The springs are essential to the Manatees that call Crystal River home. In the winter, when gulf water temperatures drop, 400 or more manatees migrate to the area for the constant warm temperatures and lush food sources. During the summer months, many of these gentle relatives of the elephant spread out to other areas in the Gulf.
Manatee based ecotourism is the largest growth industry in the area, but it also causes some contention with boaters and fishermen who share the bay. Most of the interactions are positive, but some boaters chafe as areas are posted to idle speeds or no wake zones. A number of manatees are injured or killed each year after being struck by boats or jet skis. Almost all of the adults we saw bore scars from propeller strikes, but the most devastating are the strikes by the keel
We had the opportunity to interact with several manatee and observe 4 mothers with calves ranging from newborn to a year old. In addition we toured back through some of the network of channels that lace through the waterside community. Many of the homes have a street our front with a car in the driveway and a canal out back with a boat at the dock. Since it was Memorial Day weekend and a sunny 90 degrees, many of the locals left their boats tied up rather than joining the hundreds of visiting boaters that thronged the bay that weekend. In several areas, dozens of boats were anchored along the shallow shore, swathed in a haze of barbeque smoke. On the bay, craft of every size and style plied the waters or congregated in huge rafts.
Whether you’re looking for a gateway to the gulf, or a backwater to explore or fish, Kings Bay and Crystal River Florida offer amazing opportunities. Add to that the chance to see and interact with the unique and endangered Florida Manatee and it is a great destination to add to your list.