Citrus County Florida: Just Add Water
Scalloping the Waters of Florida in Citrus County
By Sarah Robertson
As the manatee capital of the world, Citrus County Florida is famous for their lovable sea cows that call the Gulf of Mexico home.
Each winter hundreds of manatees migrate to the warm waters of Citrus County and rest in the pristine spring-fed coves and marshes that border the county.
King’s Bay and Crystal River are rife with signs that read “Idle Speed: Manatee Zone” that punctuate long boat rides into the Gulf. The locals don’t really mind the inconvenience though; they are quite fond of their underwater neighbors.
But sea cows are not all Citrus County has to offer. When the manatees leave in the spring there are literally boatloads of activities left for tourists at any time of the year. Just find a body of water and you will be sure to find something fun to do in Citrus County.
I visited Crystal River, Homosassa, Inverness, and Floral City at the peak of July when the manatees had left and the scallops moved in. I discovered something that the locals have kept a secret all along: Citrus County has much more than manatees.
Scalloping in Crystal River
We woke up early to rent our gear and a boat from the dive shop at the Plantation Inn on Crystal River. The resort sits right on the canal offering guests a variety of fishing and diving excursions, as well as supplying their premier restaurant, the West 82°, with a fresh catch each day. Guests even have the option to cook their catch at the restaurant for a truly fresh Florida fishing experience.
After a forty-minute boat ride through the channels of Crystal River with our guide, Captain Shawn Walker of Salt River Outfitters, we arrived at our destination. To my surprise, we saw dozens of boats and dive flags already floating on the underwater field despite the looming thunder.
Even on a stormy day, faithful scallopers made the trek out to see what they could catch.
A snorkel, mask, fins, and small mesh bag are all you need to go scalloping in Florida. The actual act of scalloping is quite simple: spot a scallop, dive down, snatch it, and toss it in the bag. Easier said than done.
I jumped in eagerly and was struck by the warmth and clarity of the water. Looking down at the carefree grass swaying with the tides, I wondered how I was supposed to begin picking scallops from the thick grass.
We had been instructed to look for the tiny, bright-blue eyes of open scallops filter-feeding, but when this proved impossible I resorted to diving down and skimming the bottom more closely. It takes a well-seasoned eye to spot scallops from the surface.
For many Citrus County locals, scalloping is a family pastime that gets everyone into the water. Families gather by the hundreds on July 1st to kick off the first day of scalloping season. It’s hard not to compete amongst ourselves to see who can gather the most scallops; even newbies like myself couldn’t curb their competitive edge.
A couple of hours and a few mouthfuls of water later we caught six pounds of scallops, just enough for our dinner that night. I was sunburnt, exhausted, and hungry, but I was content.
Meeting Wildlife at Homosassa Springs
If there is such thing as heaven for animals it probably looks a lot like Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The 210-acre park showcases the best of Florida’s wildlife while providing a safe haven for wild animals injured, sick, or orphaned.
With their unique underwater observatory, expansive nature trails, and diverse wildlife, it is the best place to see Florida’s nature year-round.
The centerpiece of the park, a 45-foot deep freshwater spring, is home to several manatees and a wide variety of fish. The spring heads the Homosassa River that feeds into the Gulf of Mexico, allowing wild fish to come and go naturally throughout the exhibit. The enclosed spring is a refuge for injured and orphaned manatees, some of which are rehabilitated and returned to the wild.
Rare birds, alligators, black bears, and even Lu the retired circus hippo are longtime residents of Homosassa Springs. The newest addition to the park, an 8-month old Florida panther named Yuma, was welcomed with open arms and has established himself as quite the celebrity in Homosassa.
Yuma was found nearly dead at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge after being abandoned by his mother just a month after he was born. The rangers at Homosassa found him, nursed him back to health, and now he is a permanent resident at the wildlife refuge.
Yuma is one of only about 160 Florida panthers left in the world and his rescue will play a part in keeping Florida’s national animal alive. On August 21st he will be moved into the large panther exhibit for the public to see. It is obvious that Yuma is impervious to how own fame, however; when I met him he was leaping around his enclosure like a giant kitten trying to play with us.
Fawning Over Floral City and Inverness
For a peaceful day rent a bike from Suncoast Bicycles in Inverness and ride the Withlacoochee State Trail to Floral City.
Appreciate the old cypress trees that line the trail, stop by Ferris Groves for some fresh oranges, or take a detour and explore the adorable shops in downtown Inverness. Slowly but surely the ride from Inverness to Floral City will send you back in time.
Once Floral City’s famous “Avenue of Historic Oaks”.you arrive in Floral City ride down The Avenue of Historic Oaks to see the town’s oldest and proudest monuments. Then tour the Floral City Heritage Museum and the time travel will be complete.
The head of the Floral City Heritage Council, Frank Peters, gave us a tour of the museum and is eager to share his endless knowledge with anyone who will visit his proud little city.
The Heritage Council puts on the annual Floral City “Heritage Days” event the first weekend in December to celebrate their rich history. Members of the community dress up and open up their homes for historic tours, artisans demonstrate their traditional crafts, and live music and food last throughout the weekend.
The celebration recreates historic Floral City while fostering intense pride amongst its residents.the Floral City Heritage Museum and the time travel will be complete.
For a dose of culture in the country stop by the Florida Artists’ Gallery & Café. The gallery showcases local artists and hosts events once a month for the community to learn more about the amazing people behind the canvasses. Paddling on Three Sisters Springs
For my first time on a paddleboard, I did surprisingly well. I didn’t fall off at all which leads me to believe that anyone can get the hang of a paddleboard with some balance and a little patience.
Paddleboarding is the best way to see Three Sisters Springs because they can easily get through the narrow inlets whereas boats cannot. Perhaps the best way to experience Citrus County is to dive right in. Paddleboarding, kayaking, and boat rentals are some of the most popular attractions during the manatee season but can be just as great in the off-season.
Manatee Paddle in downtown Crystal River offers paddleboarding and kayaking tours to small groups in some of the most popular locations in the bay.
Our paddleboarding trip took us out of Three Sisters and into King’s Bay. The only problem with paddleboarding in open water in Crystal River is avoiding the numerous manatee adventure boats and fishing boats constantly going in and out of the bay.
To avoid them we paddled off to the side of the bay where we found a bottle-nosed dolphin splashing around. It swam right in front of our boards, close enough to see its tiny black eyes and smooth gray skin. It pays to get up close and personal with nature sometimes.
There were no manatees resting in the Three Sisters Springs when we visited but the location was still breathtaking. Perfectly clear, striking blue water filled the small spring which reached down almost twenty feet. At springs like Three Sisters ,salt water mixes with fresh water creating what is known as brackish water that has a distinctive rich blue color.
Diving Into the Chassahowitka River
Our tour guide, Dennis Bauer, poses for a picture on the Chaz. Another one of Homosassa’s gems and a favorite hangout for Citrus natives is the Chassahowitsa River. Known simply as “The Chaz”, the river doubles as a national wildlife refuge and popular campground. Kayak or cruise through five miles of rivers and see even more of the natural beauty Florida has to offer.
We paddled down the river with our guide from the Chassahowitka River Campground, Dennis Bauer, past fallen palm trees and schools of mullet leaping from the water. Alligators sunning themselves on the river’s edge and otters playing in the shallows are common sights on a cruise down the river.
One stop on our trip brought us to another spring known as the Crack. It is a 30-foot crevice that pumps salt water into a small oasis off the Chassahowitka.
In order to get to the Crack, visitors have to beach their kayaks and walk a short way through a shallow part of the river. Walking through the ankle-deep water felt like a hike through the Amazon, and the secret spot felt like it was worlds away too.
When you’re done sightseeing from inside the boat cool off on one of the rope swings or explore the underwater caves in Seven Sisters Spring.
Like most fresh water rivers in Florida, the Chaz begins with fresh water springs that flow into the Gulf. What is unique about the Chaz is that the springs have formed a series of underwater caves that swimmers and scuba divers never grow tired of exploring.
Some of these caves go down a hundred feet, while others are small enough to swim through in one big breath. Swimmers are warned that the campground does not encourage cave diving, however, and that it is swim at your own risk. Regardless, conquering the cave was an item I checked off my bucket list.
Visit Citrus County
In Citrus County water is everywhere so people have learned how to use it. From fishing, to scalloping, to paddling and diving, there is something for everyone in this lively county. The hardest part is finding the time to do it all.
For more information about Citrus County visit their website at www.visitcitrus.com
Sarah Robertson is a professional writer and photographer with a degree in journalism and natural resource conservation from UMass Amherst