Stand Up Paddleboard Adventure and Manatee Encounter

By Diane Bedard Posted on July 11, 2019

I enjoy water adventures. The all-inclusive guided tours with Hunter Springs Kayaks given by friendly, knowledgeable guides suit me well.

Each time I have taken a tour with HSK, our guide has been on a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP). It looks like a lot of fun, but I was nervous about doing it myself. Finally, I mentioned it to Dave Perry Jr., and we decided to get NatureCoaster up on a SUP.

For those of you who don’t know me, I qualify as a senior citizen at some fast food places, but do not qualify for social security. I am not thin and am not overly coordinated.

dave perry jr and diane bedard
Dave Perry Jr., co-owner of Hunter Springs Kayaks and Diane Bedard, NatureCoaster, preparing to teach an old dog new tricks at Hunter Springs Park in Crystal River.

“It’s easy,” Dave encouraged me, “We will start with a simple lesson on getting up and down at Hunter Springs Park.”

This sounded feasible to me. It’s only a couple of blocks from the Hunter Springs Kayaks location in Crystal River, not too crowded and has a nice beach-type launch area. There isn’t much to contend with from wind and waves, and there is always the possibility of encountering a manatee or two.

Mark Khokhlod at Hunter Springs Kayaks
Mark Khokhlod shows me the Manatee Manners video. Image by Diane Bedard

At the Hunter Springs Kayaks location, I met Mark Khokhlod, who has been with the Crystal River outfitter and tour company for only a few months and loves it. Mark is originally from Latvia. He speaks Russian, Latvian, English and Spanish. He emigrated to Tampa with his family in 1991. “I love people, hospitality and being outdoors. This is perfect for me,” Mark explained.

Mark helped fit me with a wet suit and I watched the Manatee Manners video. When I came to Florida’s Nature Coast in 2005, Citrus County was touted as the only place where you could legally swim with – and touch – a manatee.

baby manatee
Passive observation is the preferred method of interacting with manatees today.

Passive Observation of Manatees in the Wild

It has become widely agreed that passively viewing manatees while in the water is a better way to interact for both manatee and human. Passive viewing did not sound as exciting, but the animals must be taken care of.

Dave Perry, Jr. was to be my guide. He explained passive observation position as using your arms in a circular fashion to propel yourself forward and to cross your legs so as not to kick the water, which could frighten the animals. “We no long reach out to touch the manatees. We swim near and let them interact with us,” he told me.

kneeling on a SUP
My SUP adventure began with personal instruction on how to stand up on this watercraft. Begin by kneeling on the board.

How to Stand Up on a Paddleboard

We began our adventure with Dave holding my paddleboard while I climbed aboard in a kneeling position. The water was less than two feet deep and I easily accomplished this. Across the front of the board lay my paddle in easy reach.

“First, get up on all fours and pick up the paddle. Then stand up slowly, one leg at a time. You can use the paddle as a stabilizer and try not to move suddenly. Most people fall when they jerk and their board moves quickly under them,” he explained.

standing on a paddleboard
I am proudly standing on the paddleboard on the first try!

I unfolded my legs, rising gently and – voila – I was standing up on my paddleboard! That was easy.

What a vantage to see the water both above and below. I like it.

pushing the paddleboard
After my overconfidence, I fell and started over. No problem. My guide was patient and helpful.

The paddleboard glided a bit. I overreacted and, splash, into the water I went. It was painless. I quickly recovered, climbing back aboard, got my paddle, up on all fours, rose to standing, and ready to continue.

“Now you paddle,” Dave’s voice intruded on my moment of glory, “by dipping the paddle in the water so the C curve is pointing forward. You want to paddle 1-2 strokes and then switch sides, holding the paddle upright as you stroke.”

paddling the paddleboard
Paddling around Hunter Springs park and enjoying the view.

I took a couple of strokes and my board glided across the water. “I like this,” I exclaimed.

Dave quickly got on his SUP while I practiced moving the board forward and switching sides without sudden movements.

“We saw a mother and calf (manatee) in the area recently. Today is the day we hope to be able to get in the water with them,” Dave told me cheerfully. I was thrilled!

manatee sighting
I love the view from a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP). It is easy to spot manatees as they swim along, as well as fish and crabs.

There were manatee tour boats, kayakers, and swimmers around us, as Hunter Springs Park is a public facility with homes surrounding the springs area, as well as locals and visitors enjoying the beautiful day. This meant that I should look ahead while navigating, not down at my paddle.

See Manatees and More from a Stand Up Paddleboard

The view from a stand up paddleboard is magical to me. Seeing farther ahead than in a kayak, while enjoying the sea life from its higher vantage point makes this extra special. Fishes swam under us; we spied manatee and we greeted the tour boat operators.

stand up paddleboarding
Stand up paddleboarding into a channel, enjoying the view and the feeling of floating on water.

It is truly a pleasure to see how Crystal River’s tour operators cooperate with each other, sharing manatee locations so everyone can have the opportunity to enjoy their presence. “We want everyone to be able to enjoy these amazing creatures while they are here,” Dave explains.

Dave and I paddled up Hunters Spring Run a bit and into a small channel without traffic. I was getting better at maneuvering my SUP board and feeling confident when I again moved suddenly and – splash – into the drink I went. It felt good with those refreshing 72-degree spring waters!

getting off SUP
It is easy to get off the SUP and go swimming. I simply reversed the process of standing up and then hopped off the board into the water.

I got back on the board easily and we ventured back to the spring run. “Let’s get in and swim,” Dave suggested, “Just reverse the moves you used to get up, sit back down on your board, and then slide off.”

Worked like a charm.

passive observation swimming
Passive observation swimming involves rotating your arms, similar to dog paddle, but not kicking your legs.

We each donned a swim noodle for buoyancy, put on our mask and snorkel, and swam over to passively observe the manatee mother and calf.

mother and calf manatee
Mother and calf manatees are out of arm’s reach but close enough to feel their presence.

While swimming, I look below to enjoy the diversity of the aquatic terrain. As we approach, I slow down and there they are. A large mother manatee with scars from a propeller on her, flanked by a tiny miniature of herself untouched by the marks of life upon its newly created dermis. So gentle and so free.

Mother and Calf Manatee Encounter

Mother was slowly grazing and moving forward, while her “mini-me” stayed near her side. It was relaxing to observe and not worry about actual contact with the sea cows. Their leathery skin reflected the light above as they glided by.

manatee calf breath
The manatee calf surfaced for a breath while we watched and its mother continued grazing.

The calf went up to the surface, gleaning a breath while its mother continued grazing undisturbed. It was a true blessing to be a part of this duos existence for a few minutes without intruding on their activities… then all too soon they swam by and it was done.

manatees swimming
Too soon, mom and calf swam on and we returned to our boards.

Back to our boards we swam and got on. Although Dave was more graceful than me, I had no problems.

We steered our boards to the very beach we had departed from a few hours earlier. Our Hunter Springs Kayak team was waiting. They quickly loaded the Stand Up Paddleboards we had dismounted from, along with our paddles and lifejackets and noodles while we took a short walk back to the store.

Hunter Springs Park
Back to the Hunter Springs Park beach we went, meeting up with the Hunter Springs Kayak team who were ready to pack up our gear.

And now I want a SUP because they are just great for seeing all that the water has to offer. They are safe and fun for mature audiences too! If you are intrigued by this article, give Hunter Springs Kayaks a call and schedule a SUP tour for yourself. It’s a great confidence builder and eco-tourism adventure.

** All images in this article are courtesy of Hunter Springs Kayaks.



Nan says

Great article & photos. Thanks! I’ve been wanting to try a sup and will definitely do it soon!

R2Leia2 says

Great article! The only correction I would say is to clarify the rumor that CR is the only place to legally swim/touch a manatee. That’s simply untrue. Even in Merritt Island manatee tours can be found! The ESA does not prohibit touching or swimming with the manatee. You just cannot pursue, harass, etc. Hopefully people can learn the truth about that. Imagine those poor mermaids getting in trouble for swimming with the manatees! As always, though, passive observation is the best and most respectful way to enjoy our nature coast animals.

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