It was February; the weather was cool, cool enough to wear a small windbreaker. I had heard that the manatees were out and running in Crystal River, Florida. Since I only lived a short distance away in Orlando, I thought that getting out on the water early would be a chance to see these "Gentle Giants." I started out from Orlando at approximately 4am and arrived just around sunup. I pulled into a small dive shop on the main strip in Crystal River and was told about an island where I could paddle my kayak and have a good chance to see a manatee or two.
I put my kayak in and was at the island in about 30 minutes. As I approached the area, I heard a loud noise about 20 yards off my port bow. It startled me and I looked to see the snout of one of the largest creatures I believe I have ever seen while kayaking. I made my way over to the area and with mask and snorkel and camera in hand, I dove in and proceeded to get my first glimpse of Florida up close. Being my first time snorkeling around manatees, I was a bit apprehensive, but swam around hoping to get a picture or two. At that very moment a manatee came up beside me and nudged my arm. I must have swallowed half the river at that moment. This "Gentle Giant" was the largest mammal I had ever seen. I didn't have time to snap a picture, just try to stay calm while choking on the untasty river that I had just swallowed. Another manatee was not far off my other side and I just stared at how beautiful these two huge creatures of the waters were. I swam around them - not touching or bothering them but just observing.
I left that day with a whole new respect for Florida, and the Manatee. Oh, sorry, never did get any pictures, I was just too caught up in the moment. Will go again next year. This time for the picture.
There are motel and Hotels in Inverness.
I was not aware of any fees or permits, but if you are snorkeling you will need to post a diving flag on your kayak or boat while your under.
From Orlando, take the Florida Turnpike (north) to Hwy 44 toward Inverness, Florida. Take Hwy 44 to Hwy 19 and go North appoximately 7-10 miles and your in Crystal River. Just ask around and all the local townsfolk will tell you how to get to the islands.
There are plenty of maps and books at any leading bookstore.