In April of 2006, I was invited to visit my boyfriend one weekend while he attended a two-week school for the US Coast Guard in Crystal River, Florida. We joined several of his friends in a boating and diving expedition in King’s Bay.
Renting the Boat
There are many hotels in Crystal River that reside along the banks of King’s Bay, and most – if not all – offer boating rentals to guests.
The particular hotel where we were staying, Best Western, offered us a group rate on a pontoon boat (though whether it was because the group was attending a Coast Guard school or they have an established group plan is anybody’s guess).
Boats with less than 12 people aboard do not need any type of boating qualifications. We, of course, a boat full of Coast Guard sailors, had plenty of qualified drivers. Because of the nature of pontoon boats and the unusual way they maneuver in the water, I would highly suggest picking a driver with some amount of experience.
Renting the Gear
I was able to rent a wet suit, face mask, snorkel, and fins for a mere $35. Oxygen tanks for certified SCUBA divers were available for $50, and of course the shop was full of very nice suits, masks, snorkels, etc. available for purchase, though the prices were not as much of a bargain.
The wet suit served its purpose; it kept me warmer than the water was, although it didn’t fit perfectly (what can you expect for less than $35?) and did allow some cold water to circulate. The mask, snorkel, and fins were plain but leak-proof and of good quality.
Finding the Best Spots
A map of King’s Bay is easy to find and most people have their favored places.
The best place we visited, by far, was “The Twin Sisters”. Two springs pour crystal clear freshwater into a reservoir surrounded by vegetation. The waters are, as one would assume, crystal clear and extremely clean. If you want to see a manatee, this is your best bet.
King’s Bay is, in a word, cold. The water temperature when we went diving was right around 72 Fahrenheit, and while that may sound nice and warm, remember that water actually feels about 10 degrees cooler than it really is. Even in a wetsuit, my lips were starting to turn blue after about an hour, and I had to take a break.
The water, however, was more clear than any I had ever been in (being a native Texan, I realize that that’s not saying too terribly much, but Crystal Rivers is rated very highly as a diving location by local diving fanatics). Most of the local diving schools, including the diving certification class at the University of South Florida, use King’s Bay as their certification test-dive location.
I am not a certified SCUBA diver, so I was only permitted to snorkel, but a few in our group did have their certifications and had a blast diving. There are underwater caverns and even a couple of caves by some of the largest springs.
Looking for Manatees
One of the greatest attractions to King’s Bay is the possibility of seeing a manatee; lovable, giant, usually gentle sea mammals who come to the springs when the water out in the Gulf of Mexico gets too cold for them.
Manatees enjoy protected waters as the springs are all no wake zones. Many of the areas are off-limits to boats for most of the winter months. As the water heats up in the spring, the manatees head back out to the Gulf of Mexico.
Unfortunately, when the water gets to a temperature most people can actually stand to be in for any amount of time, the manatees are already on the way back out. We weren’t able to see any manatees this time around, but we did have a very nice diving experience.