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Swimming with the Gentle Giants

Citrus County is an ideal winter vacation destination for nature lovers, especially those seeking the extraordinary experience of swimming with the manatees.

Zoos and aquariums abound in the United States. But just one place is famous for letting visitors get up close and personal with the gentle giant of the sea—the manatee, which is believed to have inspired sailors’ stories of mermaid sightings in centuries past. And this place is Citrus County, located on Florida’s west coast, an easy drive west of Orlando.

Temperatures in the winter months in Citrus County range from 20 degrees Celsius to 25 degrees Celsius, making it a perfect destination for that time of the year.

Manatees, also known as sea cows, flock to the region’s warm rivers from the sea in the winter. Hundreds of them gather in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge from November to March. This is believed to be the largest herd of manatees in the entire hemisphere.

Up to 13 feet long and believed to be related to elephants, manatees can live up to 60 years, much of which they spend sleeping. Many researchers believe them to be as intelligent as dolphins, and they seem to genuinely enjoy spending time with human visitors.

“Swimming with the manatee is definitely a bucket list item for any outdoor enthusiast,” says Adam Thomas, director of Citrus County Visitors and Convention Bureau. “It’s a sense of purity, love and understanding between you and a mammal weighing in at [725 to 1360 kilograms]. These playful, curious giants make the experience of being in the water memorable for people of all ages.”

Many protected areas in Citrus County showcase the creatures, along with a wide variety of flora and fauna. “The diversity of outdoor experiences includes wildlife viewing, especially close encounters with the famous manatee and other tropical species, hiking, biking, fishing, diving and exploring the area’s archaeology,” says Thomas.

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a Florida state park that showcases native Florida wildlife, including manatees, black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, alligators, the American crocodile and river otters. “The 210-acre park encompasses some of Florida’s loveliest landscape,” says Thomas.

Birdwatching is another extremely popular activity in Citrus County, where places like the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge allow a population of more than 250 species of birds to flourish. In particular, the region is known for a large concentration of red-cockaded woodpeckers and a migratory flock of whooping cranes.

With over 12,500 hectares of saltwater bays, brackish marshes and estuaries, the Chassahowitzka wildlife refuge is also home to more than 50 types of reptiles and amphibians and more than 25 species of mammals like the manatee.

For those more interested in cultural activities, Citrus County offers a thriving art scene, educational programs for all ages and several specialty boutiques and famous restaurants.

From Vintage on 5th in Crystal River to McLeod House Bistro in Inverness, you can find tasty delicacies that make your dining experience extra special, says Thomas.

Vintage on 5th is a renovated 1940 church located in the historic downtown core of Crystal River. The restaurant prides itself on using fresh, locally grown or caught ingredients, which are used to create Southern classics like shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes and fresh fish dishes. Ask for a seat on the wraparound porch to experience the slow-paced lifestyle and famed hospitality of the South.

At the McLeod House Bistro, diners enter a 100-year-old home surrounded by equally-old giant oak trees. Here, they are treated to the creations of a classically European trained chef who uses locally-sourced fresh produce and home-grown herbs.

Outdoor and sporting activities like golfing are available the year round, thanks to the temperate climate. And if the idea of swimming with manatees leaves you feeling squeamish, fear not. To get a sense of how these creatures behave and interact, without ever leaving your home, visit manateecam.org. You can view the feed from a live webcam from Citrus County and experience, albeit virtually, the joys of Citrus County in winters.


Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.