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Kings Bay is a large open water bay that is connected to the Gulf of Mexico by the 7 mile Crystal River. Manatees seek its warmer temperatures and 72 degree springs during winter months when the ocean waters get too cool.
Free parking and launch (with bathrooms!) is available at Hunter Spring Park (turn on Citrus Ave from 19. Once you launch (to the right into the bay) it's just a little bit to pass by Pete's Marine and the next inlet leads to 3 Sisters spring and Gator Hole.
In Gator Hole, there was a mating herd. Gator Hole is blocked off as a protected area where manatees can go for privacy. There is a heavy fine for going into blocked off areas so stay beyond the pylons. You could still see from a short distance that there was some serious activity going on of the baby-manatee-making kind. The activities even travel outside the blocked area and they were right under us. Me in the Pungo and my partner and our daughter in the Dagger tandem. It was a little scary as they rolled and tangled under the kayaks. Though manatees are usually quite aware of their surroundings and won't accidentally bump you, they had other things on their minds.
Just around the next bend is a crystal clear spring head. Lots of snorkeling tours go here so it can get crowded, but you can't beat the experience. There is a roped off area that the manatees can go to and rest, but they are right there visible and they come in and out of the roped off area seeking attention. It's only waist deep here, so even if you didn't bring snorkeling gear, you can get out and enjoy the encounter. We stayed here for pushing 2 hours. It's an amazing experience. Note, you may not tie off to any trees or fences or private property so if you want to get out and pet the manatees (if you think you wont, you will) bring a small anchor.
I can't express how incredible it was to be surrounded by these giant animals, adults and babies, coming and going and seeking to be petted. Our ten year old was scared to pet them because they were so big. I was heartbroken that she missed the experience of touching, but she did learn a lot and got plenty of visual.
Another common manatee gathering area is Kings Hole which is on the south side of Banana Island. This is on the other side of the bay from 3 Sisters. It's very near the Port Marine Hotel and Tiki Bar. The water is deeper, not clear and it's much more open, but the manatees were plentiful and were coming up from all over. It's a bit scary yet so exciting when a giant one passes right under your kayak. Snorkeling is also popular here, but it's deep and not conducive to getting in and out of a kayak. It's much more open and not a "sure thing" for a hands-on experience. You can park at and launch from the hotel for $5 a kayak. There is a steak house restaurant and lively bar at the hotel.
We went on this trip hoping to see a manatee or two. It was so far beyond what we had hoped for. A complete thrill.
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