Getaway: Clear Blue Waters
Florida is a wonderland for snorkelers and scuba divers, with plenty of places to explore—both below and above the surface.
Kayakers explore the topside beauty of Rainbow River
Jeff Walczak/Marion County Bcc
From unexpected encounters with octopuses swimming among the pilings under Blue Heron Bridge to finding fossilized shark’s teeth in the freshwater springs of Rainbow River to playing with the friendly manatees of Crystal River, there are countless ways to dive in and discover Florida’s coastlines, springs, and waterways. Here’s a look at three scenic spots, all easily accessible from Orlando.
BLUE HERON BRIDGE/PHIL FOSTER PARK
Phil Foster Park, about a three-hour drive south to Riviera Beach, is located under the Blue Heron Bridge. It’s a great alternative for those wanting to explore the underwater world without braving coastal waves. Admission to the park is free and includes picnic areas, restrooms, freshwater showers and beach access to Lake Worth Lagoon. Depths range from 5 to 20 feet, making it ideal for both snorkelers and scuba divers. Just be sure to check the tide charts so you’re there when visibility is at its best: one hour before or after slack high tide. For dive or snorkel gear, the onsite dive shop at Blue Heron Bridge has everything from masks and tanks to dive flags.
Once you’re outfitted and ready, you’ll find that the 800-foot long Snorkel Trail, marked by three underwater statues, is easy to navigate. The natural marine life is equally impressive with wily octopuses crawling along the sandy bottom, shy seahorses hiding under rocks, and playful angelfish darting through the water. For those looking to extend their stay here, the Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa is nearby. Condominium-style suites include a full kitchen, and living, dining, and sleeping areas as well as private balconies with ocean views.
A loggerhead turtle and a small school of grunts search for food on the sandy bottom (©MICHAEL SCOTT)
When it comes to playing with the big boys, there’s nothing like swimming with the manatees. Crystal River, a 90-minute drive northwest toward Homosassa, has 70 springs, most of which are in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Once there, Kings Bay and the nearby Homosassa River provide a natural habitat for over 1,000 manatees that come here for shelter during the winter months. So many manatees have been known to congregate here that from November 15 to March 31, access to some of the springs is blocked off to protect these gentle giants. And while the water may seem warm to them, the constant 73-degree temperature doesn’t feel too balmy to us. Come prepared with a thick wetsuit and extra dry layers for the boat ride back to the marina.
All of the available charter excursion companies respect the marine mammals and follow the same protocol. During the manatee encounters, observation practices allow swimmers and snorkelers to touch manatees with one hand only if a manatee initiates contact. And while you may be tempted to offer a belly scratch, merely watching these peaceful creatures float through the water is epic.
After some manatee action, a favorite snorkel/dive stop is King Spring, located in Kings Bay. Divers love it for the small cavern and spring, located at a depth of 65 feet. At the surface, snorkelers can keep an eye out for manatees or search for other Florida marine life such as gar, bass and bluegill.
For those wanting to make a weekend out of it, book a stay at the Plantation on Crystal River. Located just minutes from the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge, the 50-year old hotel sits on 232 acres and offers high-end amenities such as waterview rooms, a full-service spa, golfing, boating and fishing. Bonus: The hotel’s proximity to the river, and its onsite dive shop, mean guests can take manatee snorkeling tours just steps from their door.
Fish surround one of the many coral heads found in the waters under Blue Heron Bridge (©MICHAEL SCOTT)
With waters reflecting bright greens and blues, it’s clear to see why this spot is called Rainbow River. Located in Dunnellon, a two-hour drive northwest of Orlando, the 5.7-mile freshwater river pumps out an estimated 400 to 600 million gallons of water daily, allowing snorkelers and divers to simply give in to the calm current and go with the flow.
Dive operators like American Pro Dive offer snorkel/dive excursions that taxi groups upriver and follow them back to the starting point as they leisurely drift along the miles of watery landscape. Below the surface, you’ll see bubbling sand—a distinctive sign of the river’s many freshwater springs—and grassy beds housing curious bluegill and bass, turtles, and the occasional diving anhinga—Florida’s beloved water bird.
It only takes about an hour to drift downriver, and with the river’s maximum depth of 25 feet, divers don’t have to worry about running out of air. Since the boat follows alongside the group, there’s always an escape route for those wanting a break or a cup of hot chocolate, a cherished after-dive treat.
For overnight stays, the recently renovated Gator Den Motel at Angler’s Resort is set on the Withlacoochee River, less than a mile away. The full-service bait and tackle shop, as well as boat rental options, make it a go-to spot for those wanting to fish. Come nightfall, everyone can reconvene at the Blue Gator for live music and cold beers down by the water.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Whether you go for the day or longer, here are some suggestions for enjoying your snorkel/scuba getaway.
While you’re at Blue Heron Bridge, check out Guanabanas Restaurant, a tropical oasis nestled along the water off A1A. The menu features mouthwatering fish tacos, nachos, and cheeseburgers that will put the perfect punctuation mark to an action-packed day in paradise. guanabanas.com
Manatee season at Crystal River is technically from November to March, so expect to find sanctuary markers designating their resting grounds. Swimmers are not allowed within these areas, but the manatees are friendly and often swim up to boats for a visit.
Ask anyone where to go after a manatee visit at Crystal River, and they’ll send you to The Freezer, a tiki bar located in an old fish freezer. On the menu: peel-and-eat shrimp, blue crabs, and Maine lobster served in a beer carton. 352-628-2452.
After a dip in Rainbow River, your visit is not complete without a taste of local cuisine such as catfish, sea scallops, frog legs, and Florida gator. Stumpknockers On the River serves up traditional Southern favorites alongside views of the Withlacoochee River. stumpknockersontheriver.com