Pontoon Boating With Manatees

A trip to Crystal River, Florida, shows the versatility of pontoon boats and the beauty of manatees.

Pontoon Boating with Manatees
Dan Armitage

I just returned from what must be one of the most concentrated assemblies of commercial pontoon boats in the world. I visited Crystal River, Florida, over the holidays with my wife and our 12-year-old son, a place famous for its freshwater springs and the manatees they attract each winter. Offering a contact flow of 72 degree water, the sea cows seek out the warmer water areas and stack up – yep – like cord wood around the springs, which are concentrated along west-central Florida’s “Nature Coast” area bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

Of course, tourists covet the chance to swim with the famously docile creatures and pay handsomely for the opportunity -- which the local resorts, dive shops and outfitters provide via pontoon boats of every size and description. For about $50 on up, you can book a seat on a pontoon boat for a half-day, idle-speed ride around King’s Bay-area springs, stopping to anchor and snorkel alongside the gentle behemoths. During the winter manatee-migration season, the entire bay is a giant no wake zone, so it’s like watching a busy boating day in slow motion.

Most of the open-water springs are roped off and closed to access by swimmers and boaters, allowing the manatees refuge while being watched and pointed at and photographed by people on the other side of the buoyed line. The most popular spring during our stay is called Three Sisters, and is landlocked but for a narrow canal connected to a broader, residential canal through which people aboard everything from stand-up paddleboards (SUP) to canoes and kayaks can paddle their way in. The paddle-powered boaters join dozens of snorkelers (like us) who also must use the narrow, 100-foot-long cut to gain entrance to the triple springs. At one point I was kicking along with a canoe ahead and nimble tween-age girl atop an SUP behind me with manatees swimming back and forth within touching distance below, trading in and out of the springs. It made for quite a moment.

We used a rental pontoon from our host resort, The Plantation Inn on Crystal River (plantationinn.com), after joining the manatee-snorkeling trip offered by the resort marina on our first day. The guided trip was based aboard a specially rigged, fully enclosed pontoon boat, and it allowed us to get the lay of the land (er, water) and gain some manatee-spotting expertise, rules and etiquette before heading out on our own. We were glad we did, for the local knowledge and insights provided by the guide/captain – who actually swam with us to show us each spring and pointed out individual manatees we would have missed, was worth its weight in neoprene – which we sorely needed as our visit coincided with Crystal River's coldest week weather-wise in two years. Luckily, wet suits are also available to rent along with the pontoon boats.