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5 AWESOME THINGS TO DO IN CRYSTAL RIVER, FLORIDA

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I’ve got a thing about kitschy, Old Florida towns. I love the history and the quirky character of them. In the past, Apalachicola on the Gulf Coast used to be my favorite.

But I think I have a new favorite now after visiting the coastal town of Crystal River.

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Located about an hour and a half north of Tampa, Crystal River is exactly the sort of funky, slightly touristy, laid-back Florida town that I love. There’s great seafood, nearby beaches, and more than enough to do to keep you busy for a short visit.

Many people skip this part of Florida, but here are five reasons why you shouldn’t skip Crystal River:

Swimming with manatees

Crystal River is known for being one of just a few places in Florida that native manatees flock to each year during the cold months. The town and its surrounding waters are dotted with natural springs that remain a balmy 72 degrees year-round, drawing in the manatees that can’t survive in colder water (because yes, it DOES get chilly in Florida in the winter).

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Hundreds of these gentle giants stuff themselves into springs and rivers around Crystal River each winter (and a handful are “residents,” who live in the area year-round), making manatee sightseeing tours really popular. I went swimming with manatees on my visit to Crystal River, and it was nothing short of incredible!

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Visiting the Three Sisters Springs Boardwalk

One of the most famous places that the manatees gather is at Three Sisters Springs, a collection of (you guessed it) three natural springs that feed the Crystal River. Swimming in the springs (like you do on a manatee tour) is amazing because the water is so clear. But if swimming isn’t your thing, don’t worry — you can walk the boardwalk above the springs, too, which is nearly just as awesome.

You can book this visit through River Ventures in Crystal River. They’ll bus you out to the boardwalk, and then you’ll have an hour to wander around and talk to the volunteers who watch over the springs. It’s a beautiful location well worth visiting.

Kayaking “The Chazz”

One of my favorite non-manatee things I did in Crystal River was kayaking on the beautiful Chassahowitzka River. Like many rivers in this part of Florida, “The Chazz” is spring-fed. Along with Tara from Citrus County tourism and Dennis who runs the campground where you can rent boats and kayaks, I paddled leisurely along the Chazz to its source — a spring everyone just calls “The Crack.”

While there were no manatees around, we did see plenty of mullet (fish that like to leap out of the water and scare you) and lots and lots of birds. The Chazz is part of the larger Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, and should be on your list if you’re looking for a chilled-out morning or afternoon.

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Catching a beach sunset

Crystal River isn’t directly on the coast, but Fort Island Gulf Beach is a short 15-minute drive away. This beach on the Gulf of Mexico is perfect for an afternoon picnic or beachy sunset.

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Meeting Lu at Homosassa Springs

Lastly, you should make a stop at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Originally opened as a kind of zoo in the early 1900s, today the park is run by the state of Florida.

When the state took over the park a few decades ago, it slowly started whittling down the animals living there to ones that you’ll find in Florida, keeping humane captivity in mind. Today, there are resident manatees, alligators, bald eagles, and even an orphaned Florida panther.

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One odd animal you’ll still find here is Lu the hippo. Hippos are certainly not indigenous to Florida, but when the state took over the park the locals petitioned for Lu the hippo to be able to stay since he’d been a staple at the park for so long. The state ended up granting Lu honorary Florida citizenship so he could continue living at Homosassa Springs.

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Where to stay

I stayed at The Plantation on Crystal River, a lovely historic hotel that resembles (you guessed it) an old antebellum plantation. The rooms are large and comfortable, and the pool is the perfect spot to relax after a day of sightseeing. The Plantation also has an on-site restaurant and offers its own dive shop and manatee tours, meaning you don’t have to go far.

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Tips for scallop season

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Before you hit the water, here are a few tips from local fishing guide Jim Lemke, who spends most of his summer scouring the grass beds of the North Suncoast.

“Make sure all of your dive gear — your mask, fins and snorkel — are in proper working order,” Lemke said. “You don’t want to get out there and find that you have got a leaky mask.”

Snorkeling gear that is only used once a year (typically during scallop season) can dry out, crack or rot away. Before you go, check your seals and straps. And remember the defogger.

Timing

“Check the weather and try to get an early start,” Lemke added. “We typically have thunderstorms in the afternoon this time of year. You don’t want to get caught out in the open when there is lightning.”

Try to get your scalloping in before noon. Public boat ramps get busy, so think about launching in the dark then watch the sunrise on the water.

Tides

“Pick your tide,” Lemke said. “You want to go scalloping on the last part of the outgoing tide and the first part of the incoming tide.”

You won’t have to kick as hard to cover ground during a slack tide. It is also easier to spot scallops hiding at the base of the sea grass blades that are standing straight up.

“Look for scallops near the sand holes,” Lemke added. “Scallops are easiest to spot in the eel grass, a blade of which is as big around as a piece of fishing line.”

Bay scallops are also in the turtle grass, which is wider and flatter than eel grass, but they are harder to see.

Where to go

Scallops need the right mix of saltwater and freshwater to survive. If rains are heavy, too much freshwater can flood the bay and wipe out a crop. If the water is too salty, they won’t survive, either.

The state’s prime scallop grounds — Homosassa, Crystal River and Steinhatchee — have the perfect combination of both fresh and saltwater.

You might hear people say, “The scallops are in.” But the idea that scallops migrate is an old fish tale. Scallops don’t travel far from the grass beds in which they were born. They spawn in the early fall, and it doesn’t take many to repopulate an area. One scallop can lay a million eggs that float around for two weeks to a month. The eggs then attach to blades of grass, and grow until the summer scallop season.

If you are planning on scalloping, head north of the Pasco-Hernando county line. The scalloping grounds run west to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County and remain open through Sept. 24.

Know the rules

Yes, you need a saltwater fishing license.

And, yes, there are limits. Recreation scallopers are allowed 2 gallons of whole bay scallops (still in the shell) or 1 pint (scallop meat out of the shell) per day. Any one vessel cannot exceed 10 gallons of whole bay scallops or a half-gallon of scallop meat.

Lemke suggests marking the 5-gallon mark on the inside of your bucket.

“Most of the five-gallon buckets that they sell at hardware stores actually hold six gallons,” he said. “So if you fill the bucket to the top with scallops, you will have one gallon too many and a very expensive ticket.”

You can catch bay scallops only by hand or with a landing or dip net. They cannot be sold for commercial purposes. For information, go to myfwc.com.

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How to catch scallops

Florida information on how to catch scallops

Information below contains the “dos” and “don’ts” on how to catch scallops

Legal Requirements in Florida for Scalloping

Recreational scallopers between the ages of 16 and 65 are required to have a current Florida saltwater fishing license to collect scallops. Non-residents over the age of 16 are required to buy a license. Exemptions include scallopers under 16 years of age, Florida residents 65 years of age or older with proof of residency and age, or scallopers on a charter boat with a valid recreational saltwater fishing license.

Scallop Limits

The bag limit is 2 gallons of whole scallops (in the shell), or 1 pint of scallop meat per person per day with no more than 10 gallons of whole scallops or 1/2 gallon of scallop meat aboard the vessel at any time. Scallops can only be harvested by hand or with a landing or dip net.

Scallop Possession

It is illegal to possess scallops on any waters outside the open harvest areas. It is also illegal to bring scallops to shore outside open harvest areas. For example, it would be legal to take scallops from waters off Homosassa, but it would be illegal to dock your boat in Pasco County with your scallop catch on-board. Map of legal scallop harvest areas.

Diver Down Flag

Whether snorkeling from a boat or wading for scallops, a dive flag is required. Watch this video provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for requirements

Dive flag requirements:

Displayed on boat – must be at least 20 inches by 24 inches. A stiffener is required to keep the flag unfurled. Must be displayed above the highest point of the boat and taken down when divers are out of the water

Displayed on float attached to snorkeler– must be at least 12 inches by 12 inches.

Divers must make reasonable efforts to stay within 300 feet of a divers-down flag on open waters (all waterways other than rivers, inlets or navigation channels) and within 100 feet of a flag within rivers, inlets, or navigation channels.

Vessel operators must make a reasonable effort to maintain a distance of at least 300 feet from divers-down flags on open waters and at least 100 feet from flags on rivers, inlets or navigation channels. Vessels approaching divers-down flags closer than 300 feet in open water and 100 feet in rivers, inlets and navigation channels must slow to idle speed.

Scalloping Equipment

Mask, snorkel and sometimes fins. Scallops are gathered either by hand or with a small dip net. A mesh bag is recommended to keep your scallops in while gathering.

How to Catch Florida Scallops and Proper Handling

The best water depth to find scallops is usually 4 – 8 feet. Look for clear water with sea-grass beds. You will find scallops in the sea-grass or at the edges of the sandy spots. They are usually easiest to see in the areas where the sand bottom meets the edge of the sea-grasses. Scallops may try to swim away when they see you but they do not swim very fast or very far.

Most people scallop from a boat and use a mask, snorkel and fins. They anchor the boat, put up their dive flag and snorkel over the beds, collecting scallops by hand or small dip net. Other useful equipment is a mesh bag to store your scallops while you are underwater gathering as scallops can sometimes pinch.

When you return to your boat, your catch should be immediately placed in a live well or if you do not have a live well, on ice in a cooler keeping the scallops separated from the melting ice water runoff. Scallops are quite sensitive to temperature and will quickly die if not kept cool, however fresh water getting into their shells will also cause them to die. The ideal situation is to keep scallops in a live well while on the water and then place the scallops on ice just prior just to cleaning. The ice makes them easier to open, because the muscle that holds the shells together relaxes. A knife, or even a teaspoon, can be used to open the shells and cut the white muscle free, discarding the shells and unwanted soft parts. Some people use a shop vacumn to clean the unwanted parts after the shells are opened.

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Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

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This last unspoiled and undeveloped habitat in Kings Bay, the headwaters of the Crystal River, is critical for protection of the West Indian Manatee. The springs in the bay, with their constant 72 degree Fahrenheit water, provide essential warm water refuge for the manatees that congregate there in the winter months.

There are about 30 known springs in all of Kings Bay. The primary springs within the wildlife refuge are Idiots Delight, Three Sisters, and the King Springs group, which includes Tarpon Hole, Mullet’s Gullet, and Little Hidden springs. Three Sisters springs is the only one accessible by land; all of the others are boat accessible only. The land around Three Sisters was acquired in 2010 and is currently open to the public only on certain dates.

Image of A manatee raises its nostrils above the surface of the water to take a breath of air. Manatees can hold their breath for as long as 20 minutes.

A manatee raises its nostrils above the surface of the water to take a breath of air. Manatees can hold their breath for as long as 20 minutes. © Russell Sparkman
In adherence to the mission of protecting and preserving the manatee and its habitat, the areas around the springs have been designated Manatee Sanctuaries and are closed to all humans from November 15th through March 31st. Visitors can still visit and view the manatees in their natural setting, however, from boats or in the water outside of those sanctuary boundaries. Many dive shops and marinas in the Town of Crystal River offer manatee tours and cater to the needs of divers and snorkelers. The refuge office also provides information on current manatee activity and other local wildlife, in addition to a gift shop and picnic tables overlooking the bay.

At a Glance:

Activities: Swimming, snorkeling, boating, fishing, manatee and other wildlife viewing, picnic area

Entrance Fee: No

Scuba Diving: Yes

Onsite Camping: No

Dogs Allowed: No

Type of Park: National Wildlife Refuge

Address and Contact Information:

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Office

1502 S.E. Kings Bay Drive
Crystal River, FL 34429

Phone: (352) 563-2088

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Planning in the works for manatee season at TSS

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CRYSTAL RIVER — We’re learning more about possible future plans for Three Sisters Springs in Citrus County.

When manatee season rolls around again next fall, Crystal River city leaders want to make sure things go smoothly at one of their top tourist attractions.

This past manatee season, a record-breaking number of people visited Three Sisters Springs. Crystal River city leaders thought about taking over control from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but now it sounds like the game plan is teamwork.

Wildlife officials say talks are underway to divide up management. They say they would take care of things like the manatees, habitat and education, while the city would take care of the visitors on land.

Local manatee tour operator Bill Oestreich has his fingers crossed.

“I hope we don’t make any major changes to something that has been working so well for so long,” he said. “I realize it is getting more crowded every year. We’ll see what happens.”

Both sides are in the talking stage right now and hope to reach an agreement soon.

(baynews9.com)

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