In Focus: An Awe-Inspiring Adventure Snorkeling with the Manatees

A father-daughter bucket list experience; promises kept.
Manatees And Manatee Tours

Crystal River is known as the Manatee Capital of the World for the hundreds of manatees that frequent the area each year. Courtesy of Discover Crystal River Florida

With her arms outstretched and eyes closed, Rose stood trembling at the bow of the Titanic. Her bravery was solely based on her faith that Jack would never let her fall.

Decades before James Cameron filmed that now-famous scene, I used to stand exactly the same way at the bow of my father’s boat. I didn’t have Leonardo DiCaprio there to catch me if I fell. He wasn’t born yet. And who falls from a boat?

Before I could even walk, I spent every weekend of my childhood until the age of six with my father. The two of us would adventure around Tampa Bay in his little speedboat, zipping out to the Gulf of Mexico, exploring Egmont Key along with the secret fishing holes my dad knew best.

I took my first steps on that boat. I baited my own hook on that boat. I was a darned good first mate. Every weekend as we headed out to sea, the coast fading in the distance, my dad would let me stand at the bow, arms out, dolphins racing along our side.

You see, I was the firstborn and was supposed to be a boy named Darrin. I ended up being a girl named Michele. If my parents were disappointed, they didn’t let it show. My dad just tossed me in his boat and off we went.

By the way, no offense to anyone named Darrin, but I must admit that I was relieved to be a Michele.

Hitting the Road

The drive from Orlando to Homosassa is one I can do in my sleep. My parents lived there for over 20 years and as a semi-adequate daughter, I’d visit as much as possible.

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Plantation on Crystal River boasts the best of both worlds: old-Florida experiences with all the convenient comforts of home. Courtesy of Discover Crystal River Florida

I was on the road to swim with the manatees and experience the wonders of Crystal River and Homosassa; wonders already close to my heart. I received a generous invitation from Discover Crystal River Florida and gratefully accepted. What they didn’t know was I was on my way to keep a promise I made to my father.

I had been putting off this swim for four years. It had been on my list of things to do—I suppose you could call it a bucket list. It was complicated.

The term bucket list was first used in 1999 and gained popularity in 2007. Created by screenwriter Justin Zackham, who wrote the screenplay for the movie “The Bucket List,” it was based on Zackham’s personal list called, “Justin’s List of Things to Do before I Kick the Bucket.” Based on the cryptic phrase “kicking the bucket,” it really wasn’t a trend I was eager to embrace. Neither was my dad.

My father never really had a bucket list. He didn’t need one. Every day was an adventure. He had goals, aspirations. He worked hard and played even harder. When I think about it, his whole life was a bucket list.

Rediscovering Crystal River

I must admit, it felt odd visiting Crystal River and not staying with my parents. For sentimental reasons, I drove by their old home. Even though it was sold two years ago, it felt like visiting a dear friend.

What a glorious surprise when I pulled up to my hotel, Plantation on Crystal River. With its stunning fountain at the entrance, graced by a circle of white manatee statues, this 232-acre, 50-year-old eco-friendly resort was just what the doctor ordered.

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Courtesy of Discover Crystal River Florida

It was as if I had stepped back in time, experiencing the peace and tranquility of old Florida. Surrounded by the natural springs of Kings Bay, I was delighted that my room opened up to a scenic canal, complete with boats and lush garden paths; a perfect place to sit and soak in the peaceful ambiance. A perfect place for reflection.

Kings Bay is one of the largest aquifers in the state and home to over 400 West Indian manatees that migrate each year to bask in the warm waters. Kings Bay was where I would experience my manatee swim. With so many activities available at the Plantation on Crystal River, it was tempting to escape to their spa or take advantage of their many activities like golfing, boating, or fishing. But since I had a 5 a.m. wake up call for my morning swim with the manatees. I hit the exceptionally comfortable sheets.

My Dad, the Adventurer

My dad was born in Lake Charles, La., in 1932. His childhood read as if it had been plucked from a Mark Twain novel. He told me stories of his youthful escapades, swinging from vines in the swamps and bayous, running with a group of rascally boys that would disappear for days, hunting, fishing, always on an adventure. At 18, he enlisted in the Air Force. He was off to see the world.

His last station was MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, where he fell in love with St. Petersburg, the Gulf of Mexico and my mother, not in that order.

When my father and mother retired, they moved to Homosassa, where he immediately bought a boat. When I’d visit, off we’d go each weekend, another adventure. Swimming with hammerheads, fishing, exploring the keys. My seat was always at the bow, wind in my hair, dolphins racing by the side of our boat. He kept his boat in a marina in Kings Bay.

In the last months of my father’s life, I spent hours by his bedside, and we talked about the past, the future, the things we wanted to do, our bucket list. We both agreed that the one adventure we would love to share was to swim with the manatees. He was upset with himself that he had lived in Homosassa for 20 years and had yet to make the trip. He promised me and himself that he would get better and we would make the reservations.

As his health declined and it was clear that he would not be able to make the swim, he asked if they could wheel him out to the boat and watch me make the swim. I said yes, I would make the swim for both of us. My dad passed away a few weeks later.

The Day of My Swim

The wakeup call came awfully early. As luck would have it, that morning was the coldest of the year, a brisk 32 degrees. I put on my swimsuit and coat, brought my supplies and headed out to Manatee Tour and Dive, where they sat us down and showed us a safety video instructing us how to interact with the manatees.

Manatees And Manatee Tours Courtesy Of Discovercrystalriverflcom 5

The biggest spring is King Spring on the southern tip of Banana Island. The most famous though, by far, is Three Sisters Springs, a place so remarkable it’s best described as a National Park in one acre. Courtesy of Discover Crystal River Florida

Discover Crystal River Florida

They took great care to teach us how to paddle safely, how to use our snorkels and gear, how to interact responsibly with the manatees. They instructed us not to initiate touch or to pet them, but to float through the experience. The instructor told us that if a manatee comes up to you, touches you and attempts to interact with you, it wasn’t necessary to swim away.

After squeezing into my wetsuit, we took the frigid boat ride to Kings Bay. Once we stopped, it surprised me to see my father’s old marina off in the distance. I slipped from the boat into Kings Bay, the 72-degree spring water a welcome relief, and paddled over to the hundreds of manatees who were delicately floating, eating grass, observing us, just as we observed them.

Magical. Spiritual. Looking into the eye of a two-thousand-pound manatee as it rubbed against you is something that never leaves you. The Manatee Tour and Dive guide was with us the entire time. When a baby manatee popped up out of the water and kissed me—yes, that really happened—the guide told me it must be my lucky day. The baby stayed by my side practically the entire time.

The beauty of these lovely sea cows, the different colors ranging from almost white to dark black, took me by surprise. I was sad to see the propellor scars on many of their bodies—devastated to see one manatee with the letter “C” carved into its body. Yet, these peaceful creatures approached us, trusted us, just as we trusted them.

Once our group started to make the way back to the boat, I took a moment to swim off to the side, a moment to be alone. But I wasn’t alone. I removed the small pouch of ashes I had tucked under the sleeve of my wetsuit and opened the bag under the water. I peered through my foggy goggles as I released my father’s ashes, allowing them to sift gently to the floor of Kings Bay. The ashes weren’t dark or grey as I had always imagined, but white, glittery, magical, just like my dad.

We make lists throughout our lives. Grocery lists. To-do lists. Bucket lists. We cling to these lists, plans made to give our lives direction, meaning, purpose. We check off our tasks, yet our lists remain incomplete, never finished.

Kate Winslet’s Rose had Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack to hold her and keep her safe on the bow of the Titanic. I had my father, always keeping me safe.

I was at my father’s side when he passed away in 2019, an honor I’ll always treasure. And I know that my dad was with me when I made my once-in-a-lifetime manatee swim. I can hear him laughing at me because he knows what a wimp I am in the cold water.

My swim with the manatees was an experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life. And isn’t that what bucket list experiences are all about? 

Discover Crystal River

Crystal River is a food-lover’s delight. From fresh-caught seafood to authentic Cajun cooking, here is your guide to the best Bucket List restaurants, along with information about booking your swim with the manatees.

Wallace’s at the Greenhouse 

2420 S. Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa
352-503-7276 |

Waterfront Social

1610 SE Paradise Circle, Crystal River 352-795-3113 |

Seafood Seller & Cafe

300 SE U.S. 19, Crystal River
352-228-4936 |

Prohibition Grill @ Copp Brewery and Winery 

7855 W. Gulf to Lake Highway,
Crystal River
352-228-8103 |

Plantation on Crystal River’s West 82° Bar & Grill

9301 W. Fort Island Trail, Crystal River 352-795-4211 |

Hunter Springs Kayaks: Manatee Tour and Dive

36 NE 4th St., Crystal River
352-228-4715 |

Categories: Local Getaways, News and Features, Travel