To drive the 500 km/311 miles from Miami to Crystal River, after a tropical week of diving in the Florida Keys, it had to be for something exciting. I only had 2 days ahead of me before driving back south to get the best glimpse of diving the springs in Northern Florida. I made the most of my time with an early morning swim with the manatees of Crystal River on the first day and a dive at the Devil’s Den on the second day. These 2 days in this peaceful region of Florida were just perfect. I wish I could have stayed another couple of days to dive the other freshwater sites located between Crystal River and Gainesville.
Exploring the springs of Florida in the Citrus County
Leaving Florida’s Turnpike Highway with my rental car at its last exit for road 44, I was hoping to see already the direction of Crystal River. Instead, I saw “Inverness” (for my non-Scottish readers, it is the capital of the Highlands of Scotland, where I currently live). My surprise continued when I saw a sign indicating the direction of the Highlands. The name of these places would be linked to the history of a nostalgic Scottish immigrant, who felt that the nearby Tsala Apopka Lake chain looked like the Lochs of the Highlands. With dense forests of oak and pine trees and an outdoor temperature of 5°C to 10°C (about 20°C difference with Miami!), I could almost believe I was back to Scotland! However, the palm trees, the horse ranches and the motels along the road reassured me that I did not drive too far; I was still in America!
Beyond this fun fact, these green landscapes quickly became my favourite part of Florida, and I was not the only one: I met many families from the south of the USA, coming back, year after year, for Christmas holidays to relax, kayak or swim with the manatees. I also talked with a group of students at Devil’s Den, road tripping to dive all the springs of the area. Thanks to the natural surroundings and the friendly atmosphere, these two days were the most relaxing of my Florida road trip while offering me unique diving adventures.
Three Sisters Spring & King’s Bay: snorkelling with the manatees
The manatees are the top attraction of Crystal River. Many people drive hundreds, thousands of miles to get the unique opportunity to approach these adorable mammals. Every winter, hundreds of West Indian manatees swim to Three Sisters Spring waters to enjoy a constant 22°C temperature and escape the cold. Thanks to a special protection program enforced by federal law, making education of the tour operators and their customers a priority, it is the only place in the world where you can legally swim with these protected animals. They take it very seriously, and before my manatee snorkelling tour, we all watched a 15-minute video explaining the dos and donts. The general rule is to practice passive observation. The idea is to stay still, floating on the surface and let the animal come to you if it wishes so.
I knew from my experience with the seals of the Farne Islands it is the best way to get great interaction as you show respect to the animal while its curiosity increases. I was a bit shocked that the video had to explain not to step on the manatees or not to sting them with a stick. I guess this is, unfortunately, necessary. Finally, I appreciated that during the time we were in the water, our guide was always watching that nobody was too invasive with the manatees, surrounding them with their arms for example. It would not have been our guide; one of the Rangers of the National Wildlife Refuge would have warned us, as they were kayaking around us.
Snorkelling with the manatees is an early bird experience. I had to meet up with the staff of the Plantation Dive Shop at 7.15am. The sun was still rising when we got on the boat and the air was at a chilly temperature of 5°C. I was happy I brought my 5mm wetsuit and my boots, but once in the water, I felt warm in the 22°C water of King’s Bay. The difference in temperature between the water and the air was so big that it felt like being in a hot spring with steam at the surface. I quickly put my mask and my snorkel on and spent most of my time underwater to stay warm!
Watch my video “Crystal River: Manatees’ Paradise.”
We spent more than an hour with the gentle “sea cows”. It was pure bliss. I’ve never seen an animal with such a loving character and curious nature. By practising passive observation, the manatees came right to me to hug me with their fins! When I asked my guide is it was normal behaviour, he said yes “The manatees have no natural predators, so they love everyone!” These animals just melt my heart. I had already the incredible luck to see dolphins and seals in the wild underwater, but the manatees win by their absolute cuteness. I saw a mother and her two calves following her for “breakfast”. I also had a manatee coming to me and showing me its belly for a rub! I just fell in love with them and so will you.
Devil’s Den: scuba diving in a prehistorical cave
The next morning, I slept in a bit and left Crystal River after a delicious breakfast around 10 am. After a scenic drive of 50 minutes through forests and horse fields, I took a small road on the left and finally saw a drawing of a devil with a scuba diving flag below an enormous oak tree. I had arrived at Devil’s Den, the underground spring in a prehistorical cave (10,000-year-old bones of animals were found there and the bones of an early man from 7,500 BC).
I was expecting to pay 38$ for the entrance plus the rental of the tank and weights, but in the end, as I was a divemaster and got my DAN dive insurance, I only paid 18$ for the tank. That is a bargain for a dive of my bucket list! Once I signed off the liability release papers, I got equipped with a tank and met up with a family of 3 divers who kindly accepted me as their buddy. After our briefing, we geared up and went down the narrow staircase. Here it was: a natural indoor pool of a striking blue colour inside a cave which roof collapsed letting in just enough sunlight. The dive in itself is an easy one. You go in a circle in one way and then back the other way. I did not go deeper than 14,5m for a total dive time of 56 minutes. Water is at 22°C so once again the comfort of my 5mm wetsuit was much appreciated.
Watch my video “Diving the Devil’s Den.”
The rock formations are not as dramatic as the beautiful stalactites of the cenotes in Mexico, but the crystal clear water and the light beams through the water totally got me. It is very photogenic, underwater photographer and videographer will be pleased. However, there are a couple of interesting dive-throughs where you will need to practice your best frog kick! This dive is cavern diving only (you can see the light at all points). The entrances to the deeper parts of the cave are blocked with death warning signs. For information, cave/technical diving is not allowed there. The Devil’s Den made it to my list of the best diving in Americas & the Caribbean.
The other famous springs of Florida
There are many other options for spring & cavern diving in the area. 2 extra days would have allowed me to visit the following sites as well:
- Rainbow River: the closest from Crystal River, only 35 minutes of driving. You can explore several springs, but most scuba divers go there for the experience of a river drift dive! You can ask the Plantation Dive Shop to organise it for you.
- Blue Grotto: Just across the road 27 from the Devil’s Den (50 minutes away from Crystal River). It is a much deeper cavern with a maximum depth of 33m. Locals enjoy the artificial air bell at 10m and meeting with Virgil, the soft-shell turtle.
- Ginnie Springs: The furthest away from Crystal River, 1h30 of driving. All local divers told me that it was their favourite site. It is not only 1 spring but 7 springs that are feeding the 30 m diameter natural pool. Cavern divers can visit the large cave and certified full cave divers can visit the Devil’s Ear and Devil’s Eye caves.
Where to stay in Crystal River?
Crystal River was a very logical choice for me: Just at the end of the Turnpike Highway, after 5 hours of driving in the afternoon, I wasn’t up for more driving the day before my manatee tour. Besides, being famous for the manatees, Crystal River offers many hotels at all prices. The interesting point in this northern area of Florida is for the price of a motel in South Florida I got a spacious and comfortable room in the best hotel in town: The Plantation Resort.
The Plantation Resort is right in the heart of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Thanks to its dive shop on property, you won’t have to wake too early to start your day with the manatees at 7.15am. After my manatee tour, I went swimming in their heated pool on the small peninsula situated between two canals leading to King’s Bay. I could not dream of a more relaxing experience surrounded by nature. Everything was so quiet that the only noise was coming from the paddles of the kayakers. I finished my day waiting for the sunset next to the river. There I had the incredible luck not only to see more manatees but also a turtle and a group of dolphins.
As the springs dive sites are just about an hour away, I decided to stay 2 nights, but I could have seen myself staying a week in such a relaxing setting. The last and not the least, make sure to have breakfast there, they have delicious, healthy options that will give you the right energy before a day of underwater adventures.
Do you need more information to plan your dive trip to Florida ? Check these additional articles about travelling and scuba diving in Florida:
- Road trip in Florida & Scuba diving: 15 things you need to know
- A stopover in Miami on my way to the Florida Keys
- Scuba diving in the Florida Keys, my American dream
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