As I paddled up Crystal Spring, I was trying to convince myself that even if I didn’t see any manatees, it still was worth the trip. The weather was perfect. The water was calm and clear. My kayak already was starting to feel like a part of me.
That’s when a massive, gray form came downstream toward me, flowed beneath my boat and continued out toward King’s Bay. Wow. I was instantly amazed by how large and graceful the manatee was. Several others followed, and before all was said and done, I’d seen dozens of them.
I paddled up to Crystal Spring, where manatees were huddled together enjoying the warm water rushing up through limestone fissures. As I returned back down toward the bay, I managed to paddle parallel to a cow and a calf for about a half-mile. It was an amazing experience watching them glide through the water, surfacing occasionally to take wet, slobbery breaths of air before descending again. There was an uncommitted tone to those breaths, caught somewhere between gills and lungs, water and air.
I spent a while paddling around King’s Bay, enjoying several more close encounters with manatees, before I headed down the Crystal River for a few miles. It ran through my mind to try to make it to the power plant, which I could see in the distance, but I had no idea how far that was and the wind was starting to pick up.
Instead, I ducked into an inlet where I found a small stream winding into the dense vegetation. The channel kept getting narrower and narrower, and I realized I was pretty much at eye level with the bank. I started thinking dark thoughts, scanning for reptile prints in the muck. If a gator came blowing through those reeds, we’d basically be eyeball to eyeball.
I decided it might not be a bad idea to back out of there, which I did. I spent a bit more time paddling around in King’s Bay before returning to Hunter Springs, loading my kayak and heading back to Ocala.
Great resource: I found a comment by JackL on Paddling.net that I used to help me find a good place to put my boat in the water and see manatees. It’s the sixth comment in this thread and it’s very useful if you want to do the same trip. Kudos to JackL for providing clear, concise instructions. Also, kudos to the other folks I saw on the river while I was out. Everyone I saw was very respectful of the manatees, giving them space and not harassing them. The boaters and swimmers also obeyed signs that restricted access to certain waters so the manatees could have some peace.